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The Stobart M-Sport Ford Rally Team opened up its 2010 FIA World Rally Championship campaign with an exciting start to Rally Sweden.
With snowy but calm conditions and temperatures of around –5C a total of 55 cars crossed the start line in the Trotting Course arena of Swedish town Karlstad.  The official start of the rally was given the royal seal of approval as Sweden’s Prince Carl Philip - himself a keen motorsport competitor - flagged away the stars of the World Rally Championship as they lined up for the 1.90km Super Special Stage.
The early morning Shakedown session had gone smoothly for all four Stobart crews, and they were all confident of making an impression on the first Super Special Stage of the 2010 WRC calendar.  With thousands of fans packing into the arena for a rally show and autograph session before the Super Special began, there was an electric atmosphere as the WRC cars went head-to-head under the floodlights.
Former double World Champion Marcus Gronholm and co-driver Timo Rautiainen made an excellent start in front of the enthusiastic crowd, clocking the sixth-fastest time and finishing as the fastest Stobart crew.
Britain’s Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin were next up for Stobart as they followed Gronholm by slotting into seventh place, just over one second behind.
Norwegian Henning Solberg was comfortable with the typical Scandinavian winter conditions, and with new co-driver Ilka Minor alongside was paired against his younger brother Petter Solberg in the Super Special.  Given their healthy sibling rivalry Henning was delighted to take advantage of a spin by Petter, who lost around 20 seconds to the incident, and go on to post the 12th quickest time.
Following the eventful opening stage all four Stobart crews will be keen to make an impression on Friday, the first full day of the rally.  Competitors will be faced by six stages totalling 122.54km followed by a return to Karlstad for another crack at the Super Special Stage used this evening.  The majority of Friday’s stage routes have been altered since the last Rally Sweden in 2008, so crews will have to rely on the accuracy of their recce notes to produce a good performance.  The day opens with the 20.78km Likenas stage, followed by the 21.28km Viggen and 19.21km Torntorp.  After regroup and service in Hagfors the crews will face a second loop of the stages covered in the morning before the 1.90km Super Special back in Karlstad.
Conditions on the roads could prove to be a major factor in the outcome of the rally.  After Shakedown crews reported that in many places the snow was not very deep and was quickly being scraped away by cars passing through the stage.  If lots of gravel gets exposed it could mean that the special Pirelli SottoZero snow tyres are put under severe pressure, and drivers will have to manage their progress carefully to avoid any setbacks.  Despite plenty of snow crews reported few large banks of it which they could use to stay on course, so car control will be  vital in securing a strong position for Saturday.
Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Marcus Gronholm said:
“The Super Special in Karlstad is a great way to kick off the rally because it is well supported by all the Swedish rally fans.  The stages tomorrow look like they will be the best, especially the first one which has a good coating of ice.  My road position should help as most of the loose snow should be cleared away by those ahead of me.  I just want to see how the pace goes on Friday before really setting a target for the rest of the weekend.”
Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said:
“It was great fun tonight to kick off the new season at last.  I always enjoy Super Specials, especially when I get matched up with Petter, and to beat him is even better.  I am also really looking forward to getting out onto the stages tomorrow as I get so much support from all the Norwegian fans who travel to the event.  Myself and Ilka have worked well together on the recce and this change has helped to motivate me for the season ahead.”
Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
“It is always exciting to start a rally in a venue like this at night with so many fans watching.  This will be a really good event as the stages and conditions will be really challenging.  There seems to be decent grip on the first couple of stages on Friday but as the day goes on I think we’re going to see a lot of gravel coming through and that could have a big effect on tyres.  Everyone is in the same boat though so we just have to do our best and try to make a strong start to the weekend.”

Follow the Rally of Sweden stage times at www.wrc.com
Leaderboard after SS 1
1.  D Sordo/M Marti                    ESP             Citroen C4                         1min 31.4sec
2.  S Ogier/J Ingrassa                  FRA            Citroen C4                          +2.0sec
3.  M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen             FIN            Ford Focus RS                     +2.1sec
4.  S Loeb/D Elena                      FRA            Citroen C4                          +2.3sec
5.  J-M Latvala/M Anttila               FIN            Ford Focus RS                     +2.6sec
6.  M Grönholm/T Rautiainen    FIN              Ford Focus RS                       +2.6sec
7.  M Wilson/S Martin                  GBR             Ford Focus RS                       +3.9sec
8.  K Räikkönen/K Lindström         FIN            Citroen C4                          +5.1sec
9.  M Ø stberg/J Andersson            NOR           Subaru Impreza                   +5.1sec
10. K Al Qassimi/M Orr                 UAE            Ford Focus RS                     +5.2sec
12. H Solberg/I Minor                  NOR            Ford Focus RS                        +5.7sec
22. M Therman/J Perälä              FIN              Ford Focus RS                        +12.0sec

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