The waiting is over. Four months since Sebastien Loeb marked the end of the old World Rally Car era with victory on Wales Rally GB, the World Rally Championship is back with new technical regulations, new cars, new teams and a host of exciting new driver line-ups.
It all starts in the city of Karlstad, which once again has the honour of hosting the only true winter rally on the WRC calendar from 10-13 February. And, for the second year running, Sweden forms the opening round of what is set to be another thrilling WRC season.
Karlstad marks the point where Sweden's longest river, Klaralven, runs into the country's largest lake, Vanern. It is also said to be Sweden's sunniest city. But while Karlstad will host the ceremonial start and finish plus two superspecial stages at the city's trotting track, the battle for glory will be fought out in the snow-coated forests of Varmland and Dalarna to the north, with the central service located at Hagfors Airport, some 85 kilometres from Karlstad.
Sweden's WRC counter requires a special blend of speed and precision as drivers thread their cars between snow banks and trees. All cars are equipped with special studded tyres that tear through the surface snow to bite into the thick layer of ice beneath to provide grip.
Despite the fact the stage surface is too slippery to walk on, the cars can achieve speeds of up to 200kph, making it a must-see event for all rally fans. However, with ambient temperatures hovering around minus 20 degrees centigrade for much of the rally, it takes a special breed of spectator to brave the extreme conditions.
Following Thursday evening's ceremonial start and superspecial stage in Karlstad, Friday's action is centred on western Varmland with a regroup in the town of Torsby. Among the highlights on day one will be the Vargasen stage, which features the famous Colin's Crest jump - named in memory of the late Colin McRae - plus the new Lovhaugen stage, which starts and finishes in Sweden but crosses the border into neighbouring Norway.
Crews head to the Dalarna region on Saturday to tackle classic stages such as Fredriksberg and Sagen, a personal favourite of double world champion Marcus Gronholm who took part on the event last year. The arena stage down a ski slope in Hagfors will also appear on Saturday's itinerary.
Sunday's stages, including Rammen and Torntorp, are located close to Hagfors. Prior to the final service the Gustavsfors stage, which hasn't been used since the 1980s, is set to provide a dramatic late twist. It's the setting of the WRC's first Power Stage, which is a new concept for 2011. As well as being shown live on television, the stage will award bonus points to the fastest three drivers.
In total, the rally features 11 different special stages each run twice over a competitive distance of 351 kilometres. The event also features the opening round of the Production Car World Rally Championship and a separate national rally for Swedish crews.
Who's going to win?
It's all to play for on Rally Sweden as competitors adapt to the new-generation World Rally Cars in competition for the first time.
Changes to the technical regulations for 2011 have led to the banning of devices such as launch control, active central differential and paddle shift gearchange, which has put a great onus on driver skill as a result.
The 2.0-litre turbo engine has been phased out and replaced with a direct-injection 1.6-litre turbo, which means less torque and the need to apply more revs. The cars are also wider and shorter. It's resulted in a more agile-handling machine in twisty and technical sections but with a slight loss of stability on high-speed roads.
There will be 13 World Rally Cars competing in Sweden - four Citroen DS3 WRCs and nine Ford Fiesta RS WRCs.
Citroen's challenge is headed by seven-time world champion Sebastien Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena. Loeb, now 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.
Ogier, the 2008 Junior world champion, made his Rally Sweden debut last season and could find it hard to outgun Loeb and Citroen privateer Petter Solberg. The Norwegian has scant knowledge of his DS3 due to a restricted testing programme but is a master of driving on snow, and is relishing the prospect of tackling two stages in his homeland on day one of the rally.
Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula One world champion, completes the Citroen line-up as he continues his rallying transition.
Ford has won every Rally Sweden since 2006 and the last two winners of the event - Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala - lead the Blue Oval attack in a brace of factory Fiesta RS WRCs.
Hirvonen is anxious to get his WRC career back on track following a frustrating 2010, but Latvala is on a high after finishing runner-up to Loeb in last season's final standings. He is determined a crash in testing last month won't knock him off his stride.
PG Andersson starts the rally as Ford's dark horse for success. The Swede has a impressive record on his home event and will be determined to put on a strong showing to repay a number of his fans who have donated much-needed funding. While there is no disputing Andersson's ability, he won't get to try the Fiesta RS WRC in final trim until four days before the start of the rally, which could count against him.
Norwegians Henning Solberg and Mads Ostberg front the M-Sport Stobart Ford World Rally Team bid and are capable of challenging for a podium. British team-mate Matthew Wilson has also shown well on Rally Sweden in the past and is a huge fan of the new Fiesta, which he has helped to develop.
Dutchman Dennis Kuipers and American Ken Block will also drive Fiestas for the FERM Power Tools and Monster World Rally Teams respectively. They will be in contention for a points finish, as will Khalid Al Qassimi, who is entered in a semi-works example with backing from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. Al Qassimi marked his Rally Sweden debut in 2008 by jumping the furthest over Colin's Crest.
Fourteen Production Car World Rally Championship drivers will be competing in Sweden and a preview will appear on WRC.com on Monday.
Other names to look out for on the Rally Sweden entry list include rapid Swede Patrik Sandell in a Skoda Fabia Super 2000, fellow former Junior world champion Martin Prokop, Norway's Eyvind Brynildsen and Swedish Touring Car Championship star Richard Goransson.
On this rally last year
Mikko Hirvonen got his 2010 title bid off to a stunning start with a comprehensive victory over Sebastien Loeb on a route that was further north and 57 per cent different to the one used in 2008 to help guarantee sufficient snow. The event also marked Marcus Gronholm's return to the world stage in a Ford Focus RS WRC. The double title-winner took a stage victory but was denied a points finish by an electrical fault. Local heroes PG Andersson and Patrik Flodin both shone. Andersson won the inaugural SWRC class in 10th overall, while Flodin topped the PWRC leaderboard.
Did you know?
When a lack of snow forced the rally's cancellation in 1990, organisers staged a made-for-TV rallysprint instead.
Crews can choose between Michelin's X Ice North tyre and DMACK's DMG-Ice tyre under new rules for 2011. While the bulk of the leading runners have chosen to run on Michelin rubber in Sweden, approximately eight crews will use the Chinese-made DMG-Ice option, which is asymmetric to reduce costs.