With the traditional WRC opener Monte-Carlo moving to an IRC round recently, Sweden picks up the honour as the opening round of the World Rally Championship for the first time. It could be one of the most competitive rallies of the year too – with the likes of Loeb, Hirvonen, Solberg, Latvala and Gronholm all possible contenders for the win.

Over half of the stages have changed since the 2008 edition, and the forecast predicts the coldest Rally Sweden for 20 years – temperatures could drop as low as -25ºC.

The last winner here was Jari-Matti Latvala, but as Mikko Hirvonen looks to finally take his first championship title, he has vowed to play the team game this year and support his team-mate.

“I love driving in the snow,” said Latvala, “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.”

Hirvonen has never won here – but was runner up to his team-mate in 2008. This year he’ll hope to go one better, and has vowed to take a more aggressive approach this year.

“Sweden is a great rally for me to start the year,”
he said. “You can carry more speed into the corners and use the snow banks to guide the car round. If the ice is slightly soft then the studded tyres bite really well and it’s a crazy feeling to drive so fast in such slippery conditions, knowing there is as much grip as on a gravel road”

“On occasions I wasn’t brave enough to make the decisions I needed to with my car set-up or to drive more aggressively. I’ve learned from that and this year there will be no second thoughts.”

Meanwhile Sebastien Loeb doesn’t know whether to like or loathe the rally – he has only finished on the podium 3 times in his career, and his only win came in 2004, which also makes it one of his less successful rallies.

“Sometimes I think that it is my favourite rally, but at other times I can hate it,” he said. “It all depends on the level of snow covering the road. At times, when the roads are iced over, with banks of snow on either side of the track and freezing temperatures, it becomes a fantastic fun filled rally.”

“On the contrary when there’s no snow or ice, mud and ruts start to appear, and when they appear the rally starts to become a real nightmare with very little driving pleasure.”

Petter Solberg will be running his own Citroen C4 this year – albeit with a slightly lower spec compared to Loeb’s factory machine. It should still be a competitive car however, and is in with a shout of winning his first rally for almost 5 years this weekend.

“2010 is the year I really believe I have the tools to be able to fight at the very top again,” he said. “I have kept dreaming about this opportunity for such a long time and we have all put in very, very long hours to make it happen.”

However, one of the past masters of the WRC has come back to race in Sweden this year – 2000 and 2002 champion Marcus Gronholm. He will race a 2008-spec Ford Focus for Team Thermanator – but has been nominated to score points for the Stobart M-Sport team. He will be partenered by usual co-driver Timo Rautianen – and the 5 time winner of this event says he’s aiming for a podium finish – no doubt behind two other Fords…

“I'm really happy to be driving the Ford Focus again; it still feels really good to drive,” he said. “All the stages on this rally will be quite difficult but I hear that there has been a lot of snow so there should be some big snow banks which will make the conditions good. Realistically my aim is for a podium, yes it would be fantastic to be challenging for the win but that is going to be difficult after having such a long break from the WRC; I will just need to wait and see how my speed is.”

Gronholm has been taking his return quite seriously too – after entering the Svully Rally in Norway at the end of January. He wasn’t able to use his Focus RS WRC, but in an Impreza Cup car, he finished second overall behind Solberg in his C4, and won his class overall. The Finn had some good competitors in his class too – namely Andreas Mikkelsen and Patrik Sandell.

“It was good to get some time on the snow,” he said. “The rally was 140km and it was useful to drive on the tyres again. Ok, the speed wasn’t quite the same as it will be in the Focus, but it was good to check the notes and get used to listening to those again. It has helped me, but the test I’ve got coming up now will help some more. It’ll be good to start driving in the Ford.”

Barring retirements, Citroen drivers Dani Sordo, Sebastien Ogier and Kimi Raikkonen should be in the hunt for points finishes – but also look out for Henning Solberg driving the second Stobart Ford – Sweden is one of hilso s favourite events and also has a new co-driver for this year, Ilka Minor, who used to be paired with Solberg’s former team-mate Manfred Stohl.

Sweden also sees the first ever round of the Super 2000 Cup, the first of 10 this year. Only 5 drivers are registered for championship points here, but there are some other drivers doing the event as a one-off who could crash the party for the five championship challengers.

Pre-season favourite has to be Sandell, not just for this rally, but for the championship as a whole. The Swede retains his Skoda Fabia and also has form on his side – he won the PWRC class in this car in Norway last year.

But another young Scandanavian will be pushing him hard is Eyvind Brynildsen, who will also be using a Skoda Fabia this season. He had managed his breakthrough victory in the PWRC at Rally GB last season, but it was taken away from him due to a technical infringement. Nevertheless, it shows he has the potential to challenge Sandell here, and for the rest of the season too.

Reigning JWRC champion Martin Prokop has also joined the series, and will drive a Ford Fiesta – the same car Hirvonen used to win the Monte-Carlo Rally in January. Janne Touhino and Bernardo Sousa will also drive Fiestas this season.

However two drivers who aren’t registered for points could end up winning the S2000 class outright. Twice JWRC champion Per-Gunnar Andersson and Mikkelsen are both proven winners at this level, and could end up stealing the limelight from Sandell and co.

Despite the formation of the new S2000 cup, the Production WRC continues, where reigning champion Armindo Araujo will surely be favourite, and has upgraded to the latest Evo X version of the Mitsubishi Lancer this year. He was the best of the Group N cars in Norway last year, and second overall behind Sandell. Without any S2000 Fabias to worry about this time round, the pressure is on for him to take all 10 points this time round.

However there are plenty of Scandanavians in the PWRC field that could spoil his rally – namely the highly experienced Patrik Flodin. He and debutant Joakin Nyman are both running Mitsubishis, which has proven the car to have over the past few seasons.

Leading the charge for Subaru is Anders Grondal in a brand new N2010 Impreza built by Prodrive. He already has two wins to his name in the Norwegian Rally Championship, and is looking to make it big on the world stage.

Another driver that could turn out to be the next big thing is Martin Semerad. At 19, he is the youngest driver in the PWRC, but also impressed last year in the Pirelli Star Driver scheme. Another former Pirelli driver, Jarkko Nikara is another one to watch this season, however he is not competing this weekend.

“Sweden is a great rally for me to start the year.  A driver can be more free in the snow because there is no need to be quite so precise with driving lines as on gravel or asphalt.  You can carry more speed into the corners and use the snow banks to guide the car round.  The grip is incredible.  If the ice is slightly soft then the studded tyres bite really well and it’s a crazy feeling to drive so fast in such slippery conditions, knowing there is as much grip as on a gravel road