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An exciting era for the World Rally Championship begins when new cars, new teams, a host of new driver line-ups and new technical regulations come together for Rally Sweden from tomorrow.

Starting in the city of Karlstad and running until Sunday, the only true winter rally on the WRC calendar launches what is set to be a thrilling season, one that in September will include Rally Australia on the Coffs Coast of New South Wales as the 10th of 13 rounds.

While Karlstad will host Rally Sweden’s ceremonial start and finish plus two superspecial stages at the city’s trotting track, the battle for glory will be fought in the snow-coated forests of Varmland and Dalarna to the north.

Rally Sweden requires a special blend of speed and precision as drivers thread their cars between snow banks and trees. Cars use special studded tyres that tear through the surface snow to bite into the thick layer of ice beneath to provide grip.

Although the stage surface is too slippery to walk on, the cars can achieve speeds up to 200 kmh, making it a must-see event for rally fans. However, with ambient temperatures often around minus 20 degrees centigrade, it takes a hardy breed of spectators.

Drivers will tackle a total competitive distance of 351 kms.

The event includes the opening round of the Production Car World Rally Championship, which also will stage a round at the 8-11 September Rally Australia.

The form guide for Rally Sweden is wide open as competitors adapt to the new-generation World Rally Cars in competition for the first time.

Changes to the technical regulations for 2011 have banned devices such as launch control, active central differentials and paddle-type gearshifts, putting greater emphasis on driver skill.

The 2.0-litre turbocharged engine has been phased out along with the Ford Focus RS WRC and Citroen C4 WRC cars and replaced with a 1.6-litre turbo.

The new cars, Citroen’s DS3 WRC and Ford’s Fiesta RS WRC, are wider and shorter. They are more agile in twisty and technical sections but slightly less stable on high-speed roads.

Citroen’s challenge is headed by seven-time world champion Sebastien Loeb. The Frenchman, 36, doesn’t rank Sweden as one of his favourite events and has played down his chances of claiming his second win on the rally.

However, like new team-mate Sebastien Ogier, Loeb has conducted extensive testing in Sweden and is expected to challenge for victory.

World champion and Citroen privateer Petter Solberg of Norway has scant knowledge of his DS3 due to a restricted testing programme, but is a master of driving on snow.

Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula One world champion, completes the Citroen line-up as he continues his rallying transition for a second season.

Ford has won every Rally Sweden since 2006 and the last two winners, Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala, lead the attack in the new Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team Fiestas RS WRCs.

Hirvonen is anxious to get his WRC career back on track after a frustrating 2010, but Latvala is on a high after finishing runner-up to Loeb in the 2010 standings. He is determined a crash in testing last month won’t knock him off his stride.

The pair has covered almost 3000 kilometres in pre-season testing their new car in Sweden.

The official Ford team is backed by seven semi-works drivers, including YouTube superstar Ken Block from the United States.

Block and Dennis Kuipers, Mads Ostberg, Matthew Wilson, Henning Solberg, PG Anderson and 2011 Dakar winner Khalid Al Qassimi all joined a special test session this week organised by car builder M-Sport.

Live results, news and video reports will be available on www.wrc.com throughout Rally Sweden.

Information on Rally Australia is available at www.rallyaustralia.com.au
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