Huge crowds braved temperatures dipping below -15?C to watch the spectacular ceremonial start to this second round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Karlstad last night.

But overcast skies this morning meant it was a more pleasant - 8?C as the 75 competitors made the hour long journey north to Hagfors, around which the six speed tests of the opening leg are based.

The recent cold spell, which saw temperatures plunge to -24?C yesterday morning, has ensured the fast and flowing roads are in perfect condition for the only true winter rally of the 14-round series.

The action began with the 14.17km Sagen and the 23.16km Rammen, the latter held amid stunning scenery alongside lakes Holmsjon and Flasjon. Ford Rallye Sport's Markko Martin and Michael Park and team-mates Fran?ois Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin fitted their Focus RS World Rally Cars with Michelin's ice tyre, with long studs to bite into the icy surface and obtain maximum grip. The third Focus RS of Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen opted for short studs on the same rubber.

Martin made a solid start to hold ninth as cars returned to the Hagfors service park. The 27-year-old Estonian, competing in Sweden for the fourth time, was fifth through Sagen and 11th in Rammen. The competition was so close that less than three seconds divided Finland's Toni Gardemeister [Skoda] in fifth and Martin.

"It was much more slippery than I expected," he said. "When I braked for the first corner on the opening stage I gave myself quite a scare and it's taking a little time to get used to the conditions. There was a lot of snow on the road on the second stage and it was hard to find a clean line to follow."

Hirvonen, starting only his fifth world rally, was 15th and the 22-year-old Finn is loving the conditions. "It's just fantastic to drive on snow and ice, so much fun. I'm trying to learn as much as I can, as quickly as I can. I think I'm braking too early and turning into bends too early but I'm really enjoying it," he said.

Duval lay 17th, the Belgian losing a little time in Rammen after going 10th fastest through the opening stage. "About 1km after the start I cut a right hand bend too much and hit a snow bank. I was worried we might have got snow in the radiator so I took it easy but it knocked my confidence a little," he said.

Colin McRae [Citroen] was the first front-runner to hit problems when he spun and filled the front of the engine with snow. The car struggled for maximum power during the rest of the test and he dropped almost 50 seconds.