Citroen driver Sebastien Loeb arrives in Sweden at the head of the FIA World Rally Championship drivers' table courtesy of his win in Monte Carlo a fortnight ago. The Frenchman knows, however, that his chances of maintaining his advantage with a...
Citroen driver Sebastien Loeb arrives in Sweden at the head of the FIA World Rally Championship drivers' table courtesy of his win in Monte Carlo a fortnight ago. The Frenchman knows, however, that his chances of maintaining his advantage with a second success on this week's Uddeholm Swedish Rally depend heavily on the weather. If it snows overnight tonight, Loeb runs first on the road and will be forced to act as a snowplough, sweeping the fresh snow off the road for the crews following. Having done just that on the 2003 rally, Loeb is understandably hoping for cold and dry conditions for leg one. The heavy snow falls which hit the rally's hometown of Karlstad, and the stages surrounding Hagfors to the north, has melted in the last couple of days as rain and rising temperatures replaced the arctic conditions. Weather forecasts indicate, however, that the temperature should fall back below freezing point in time for the rally start with snow expected on Friday. The weather aside, Loeb's biggest challenge for victory here is likely to come from Marcus Gronholm. Gronholm has won this event three years out of the last four and starts tomorrow morning's first stage as one of the favourites. The only possible cloud on the horizon for Gronholm could be his car. The Peugeot 307 WRC is just one rally old, and whether it has the pace and the reliability to match the other machinery has yet to be seen on this winter rally. Ford's Markko Martin is another driver expected to run at the front of the field, with the Estonian keen to go one better than his runners-up spot in Monte Carlo -- and help his team to lengthen its stay at the head of the manufacturers' table.
BP Ford Rallye Sport
Technical: The two official Ford Focus RS WRC03s run without major changes from round one. The only concern about the car comes in the event of heavy snow fall, which could block the car's air intake and cause overheating problems.
Sporting: Ford has elected to nominate Finnish driver Janne Tuohino to partner regular team leader Markko Martin on this rally. Tuohino has regularly impressed in Sweden and has considerably more experience of the winter conditions than Martin's usual team-mate Francois Duval. Martin was another to suffer at the hands of a high position on the opening leg of last year's Swedish, but he battled back to make fourth place, edging out Colin McRae in the process. Martin will run even higher on the road this time around (second) and is another to be hoping for dry weather. This will be Tuohino's first outing as an official driver, but he has a long association with Ford and while he knows previous Focus RS WRCs well, this will be his debut in the 2003-specification car.
Markko Martin said: "Sweden is a bit like a holiday for the drivers after the really changeable conditions of Monte Carlo. This is an event which has never been won by anybody coming from outside of Scandinavia, so it would be quite nice to end that this time around. Marcus (Gronholm) knows the rally well, however, and will be difficult to beat. "
Janne Tuohino said: "This is like a dream come true for me. It's been my ambition to drive a works car and to do it here on a rally I know well is the perfect situation. I almost finished in the top six on this event two years ago and I think with a full works car the same kind of result is possible again."
Malcolm Wilson said: "It makes sense for us to take a driver like Janne on rallies like this, where Francois doesn't have so much knowledge of the conditions. He (Francois) understands the position completely and will be back scoring points for Ford on the next rally in Mexico.
Technical: There have been no significant advances in the specification of the Xsara WRC since late last season. The cars are expected to run to a similar set-up as they did on this event last season.
Sporting: Sebastien Loeb dominated the Monte Carlo Rally and feels confident for this week's second round. The Frenchman set a fastest time on last year's event and went on to prove that he's just as at home on the snowy Swedish stages as he is in the high Alpine passes. Loeb's team-mate Carlos Sainz will be keen to forget the season-opener as he ended his participation after ripping a wheel off his Xsara on the second leg in Monte Carlo. Sainz struggled with a lack of familiarity with the Citroen on this rally 12 months ago, but with a season in the Versailles team under his belt, the double world champion should present a stronger proposition for victory this time around.
Sebastien Loeb said: "I like the Swedish Rally, driving on the snow is always good fun, but our chances really depend on the snow. Last year we struggled clearing the snow off the line, so it would be nice if it was really icy this time around. It's good to come to this rally on the back of our win on round one, but it's going to be tough to repeat that victory here."
Carlos Sainz said: "This is an event I would dearly love to win. To be the first Latin to beat the Scandinavians would make history here. It is one of my favourite events and driving here is one of the biggest thrills in the sport."
Marlboro Peugeot Total
Technical: This is the first time the 307 WRC has been seen in Sweden. The team has tested the car extensively in these conditions without any major mechanical troubles. The team is expected to retain the four-speed gearbox which it used on round one, the engineers in the team are confident the gear selection troubles which hit both 307s on the French stages have been solved.
Sporting: Peugeot is undefeated on this event since 1999, with Harri Rovanpera winning the only rally (2001) Marcus Gronholm has missed out on in the last four years. Gronholm admits that his chances of further Swedish success depend on the 307 WRC proving as potent a package on the Swedish as its predecessor. Despite a hectic test schedule and the start of the FIA World Rally Championship season, Gronholm still found time to get out and spectate on last weekend's Arctic Rally, based in northern Finland. Gronholm's fellow 307 driver Freddy Loix is really looking forward to Sweden, having run well in the past few years. The Belgian has also racked up plenty of miles in testing, but he will be hoping to establish a comfortable set-up earlier on than he did in Monte Carlo, where he struggled to get the Peugeot to his liking for the first day and a half.
Marcus Gronholm said: "Sweden is not an easy rally to win. To do it again this season, everything will have to be right with the package. It doesn't matter how fast I am if the car's not as fast as the competition. It's nice to come to an event where we can push and drive flat out from the start."
Freddy Loix said: "I came to Sweden two years ago with a broken bone in my foot and still managed to set some competitive times and run high up the leaderboard, then last year we came with very little testing and went well again. With this car I think a good result is possible this year, what's important for me is to be setting stage times consistently in the top four."
555 Subaru World Rally Team
Technical: Both Subaru Impreza WRC 2003s run in the same specification as they did on the opening round of the year in Monte Carlo.
Sporting: Petter Solberg will be hoping to capitalise on what he learned on this rally 12 months ago. The reigning world champion struggled to settle in to the demands of the snow rally, but was clearly up to speed at the end of the third leg when he set his first and only fastest time on the event. Solberg's preparations for this event were interrupted at shakedown this morning, when he was involved in a minor road accident on the way from the stage. He was overtaking another vehicle at 30kp/h when the other car turned into the Subaru. The damage was limited to the bodywork and Solberg completed one more run after the incident.
Mikko Hirvonen arrived in Monaco with just two days of testing aboard the Impreza WRC 2003 and it's a similar story on this event. Hirvonen's debut with the Subaru team was going well and without drama, until he was caught out by an icy patch and went off the road. Hirvonen enjoyed a trouble-free run to 11th on this event last year, and will be looking for a similarly confidence-boosting outing this time around.
Petter Solberg said: "I've stopped thinking about Monte Carlo now, I'm focused on Sweden where I want to get some big points on the board. The Swedish Rally is the closest to my home round of the world championship so that means there will be a hell of a lot of my home fans coming to watch. Our pre-rally test went really well and I've worked out why this event didn't go so well for us last year, but I'm not going to tell you what it is."
Mikko Hirvonen said: "Monte Carlo was a good rally for me to meet all of the team and see how everything works on rallies. It was a disappointing way to finish the event, but now I can't wait for Sweden to start. Coming from Finland we're used to driving on snow -- and it's a surface I really enjoy. It's important to feel part of the car when you're on snow and that happened for me during the test."
Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sport
Technical: There have been no significant developments on the Lancer WRC2004 since its debut in Monte Carlo.
Sporting: Gilles Panizzi drives the lead Lancer this week, but he is joined in the team by Kristian Sohlberg for the second round of the championship. This will be Sohlberg's first outing in the new Lancer, although the Finn knows many of those in the Mitsubishi squad after competing in New Zealand and Germany last season. The other factory drivers -- Gigi Galli and Daniel Sola -- will be driving Group N Lancers on this rally.
Gilles Panizzi said: "I have a good feeling in the car. We didn't have a very big test for this rally, but this morning at shakedown everything has gone well. I don't have much experience of these conditions, so the important thing for me is to make sure that I get to the finish."
Kristian Sohlberg said: "My main objective is to get to the finish of this rally. The team doesn't have a lot of data on the car, so obviously the further we go in the event, the more data we get. Everything has gone well in the run up to the rally and I'm really looking forward to getting in and driving."
This event is the opening round of this year's FIA Production Car World Rally Championship. In the absence of defending champion Martin Rowe, Toshi Arai has the honour of leading the Group N runners away, despite being forced to change the engine in his Subaru Impreza following a problem with it earlier today. Among the other frontrunners are former Mitsubishi drivers Janni Paasonen (Lancer) and Alister McRae (Impreza) and inaugural Production Car champion Karamjit Singh who returns to the series in his latest specification Proton Pert.