The first and only winter event in the 13-round 2010 World Rally Championship (WRC), the three-day Rally of Sweden introduces a number of new elements to this year’s competition that starts with a 345 kilometre journey of snow-lined roads.

Despite the punishing conditions that are expected to be the coldest in recent history, the -25 degree Celsius temperatures are all part of the challenge endured by man and machine in the chase for global rally domination.

The 21-stage event starts with a 1.9 kilometre warm-up test on the Thursday evening with the field of 66 entries headed by WRC drivers’ title defending champion Sebastién Loeb and his co-driver Daniel Elena from France. Driving a Citroen C4, the duo is part of the two-car Citroen Total World Rally Team that includes Spanish pairing Dani Sordo and navigator Marc Marti.

Finishing one point adrift of Loeb for the 2009 drivers’ title, BP Ford Abu Dhabi’s Mikko Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen continue with the record-breaking Ford Focus RS. Now in its last year before new regulations see them switch to the Super 2000-spec Ford Fiesta, they are again part of an all-Finn top Ford team with Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila driving a second Focus RS 09.

Among the notable inclusions to this year’s WRC line-up is 2007 Formula One champion Kimi Räikkönen of Finland. Debuting in a C4 WRC for the Citroen Junior Rally Team, Räikkönen will be co-driven by the experienced Kaj Lindstrom.

Petter Solberg, the 2003 world rally champion, is also driving a Citroen C4 WRC and will be running his own team to contest the whole 2010 WRC. “We want to be right up there fighting for the title with Sebastién and Mikko,” says the hugely-popular Norwegian.

Also, making a one-off return from retirement, multiple WRC champion Marcus Gronholm and co-driver Timo Rautiainen will contest the event in an M-Sport-run Ford Focus RS WRC.

With WRC regulations changing in 2011 away from the current WRC cars to the Super 2000 format, several teams have entered the just-launched Super 2000 World Rally Championship (S-WRC) with most in Ford and Skoda Super 2000 cars. This series-within-a-series also starts in Sweden, although teams need only contest ten rounds of the WRC to be eligible for S-WRC points.

The Swedish event also counts toward the Production World Rally Championship (P-WRC), with Subaru and Mitsubishi strongly represented in the line-up of entrants.

All contestants tackle the same rally roads that head north of rally-base Karlstad using the Pirelli narrow winter tyre that has tungsten-tipped steel studs to bite into the icy surface and provide amazing grip. Contrary to the perception that driving on snow and ice would be slow, this is one of the fastest events in the championship. Drivers are able to 'lean' their cars against the solid snow-banks that line the forest roads; this guides them around corners and helps extract the extra speed that can make all the difference between winning and losing. 

In 2008, the last time the event was a round of the WRC, Rally Sweden was won by Ford’s Jari-Matti Latavala. Now the 24-year-old is refreshed and raring to go after more than three months since the end of the 2009 season.

“I love driving in the snow and I would like to think a top three result is a realistic target,” says Latavala. “But my priority throughout this year will be to finish each rally in a strong points-scoring position to ensure the team scores well on each event and to help Mikko with his challenge for the drivers' title.”

With 57% of the route using new roads, picking a favourite becomes difficult in an event traditionally won by drivers with a Scandinavian background – will it be Petter Solberg and Phil Mills in the Citroen C4 WRC, or one of the Ford drivers Latvala or Hirvonen?
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