The 53rd Uddeholm Swedish Rally takes place this weekend, the second round out of sixteen in the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship.

Sweden will also play host to the first round in the 2004 FIA Production Car WRC.

The only true winter rally in the WRC - while it's not uncommon for crews to compete in temperatures as low as -30?C, full snow conditions on the event's 19 stages are by no means guaranteed.

In recent years mild conditions have presented teams with a challenging mixture of road surfaces, with everything from hard-packed snow, ice and sections of frozen gravel. As a result, this year's event is moving further north in an attempt to find more consistent snow conditions.

The event is based in the university town of Karlstad.

Special notes:

The Swedish rally is a specialist event, which favours drivers with experience of the unique conditions.

Totally unlike any others in the WRC, the snow covered Swedish stages have to be approached in a different way to the more typical WRC tarmac or gravel stages. Local knowledge counts for a lot - and it's telling that since the rally was first run in 1950, it has been won exclusively by Swedes and Finns.

Experts at 'leaning' their cars against snow banks to guide them round corners, previous winners of this demanding event have been highly skilled at driving on studded tyres at very high speeds. Last year, with an average speed of 118kph, the Swedish rally was the second-fastest of the season. Only Finland, with an average of 122kph was quicker.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

Following the Rallye Monte Carlo, Sebastien Loeb leads the drivers' championship, while Ford have taken the early lead in the constructors' - courtesy of their two-three finish with Markko Martin and Francois Duval.

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

555 Subaru World Rally Team:

[Petter Solberg, car #1 and Mikko Hirvonen, car #2.]

Not the best of starts for Subaru at the Monte Carlo Rally - a seventh and a DNF. More will be hoped for in Sweden, when if conditions are right, Pirelli tyres could give them an edge.

"Looking to the car, we'll be using the tried and tested Subaru Impreza WRC2003 in Sweden," said team principal, David Lapworth, "We completed a pre-event test in January and made some good progress with the set-up and the tyres. There's currently full snow conditions in Karlstad and we know the Pirelli tyres are very strong in those so it's looking good."

Citroen Total:

[Sebastien Loeb, car #3 and Carlos Sainz, car #4]

Citroen had a highly promising start to the 2004 season, following Sebastien Loeb's convincing win, his second at the Principality. All the signs are that the Xsara could be the car to beat again this year, and Loeb and Sainz should be right up their in Sweden, but can they beat the locals?

Marlboro Peugeot Total:

[Marcus Gronholm, car #5 and Freddy Loix, car #6].

Peugeot's record in Sweden is impressive to say the least. The new 307 WRC also seemed on form during its debut at the Principality. Marcus Gronholm has furthermore won the event three times - 2000, 2002 and 2003. Only a brave man would bet against the Finn taking his fourth success.

"Our result in Monte Carlo was quite encouraging," said Gronholm, "It allowed us to see that the 307 WRC is both competitive and reliable. Judging by the way our pre-event testing went, I am very optimistic for Sweden."

Ford Motor Company:

[Markko Martin, car #7 and Janne Tuohino, car #8. Also entered Francois Duval, car #11 - not nominated.]

Ford has decided not to nominate Duval for Sweden, so in comes 'local' Janne Tuohino to partner Martin. All will drive the 2003-spec Ford Focus'.

Explaining the decision prior to the event, team boss, Malcolm Wilson said: "Janne is a consistently good performer in Sweden and his nomination as second driver for this event strengthens our line-up for one of the championship's most specialised rallies.

"The snowy and icy conditions suit Scandinavian drivers who traditionally dominate the rally and Janne will not be out of place among the world's top drivers. Francois understands the tactical thinking behind this decision and will receive full support for the rally as a works driver who will compete with the aim of scoring drivers' points."

Mitsubishi Motor Sports:

[Gilles Panizzi, car #9 and Kristian Sohlberg, car #10.]

Mitsubishi had a good start in Monte Carlo, with Panizzi finishing sixth, however Sweden may be a tougher affair. Gilles is not on his favoured surface - tarmac, indeed he has only competed here twice before, while Sohlberg is still a relative novice.

Mario Fornaris, technical director of MMSP, though is optimistic. He noted: "The car specification in Sweden will be very similar to Monte Carlo as there is no time to do any modifications. But I feel confident about the team; we learned a lot about the car last weekend so everyone is more confident."

Production Car WRC:

It's likely to be a very competitive year in the PCWRC - look out for Alister McRae who will be out to impress and re-launch his WRC career. Amongst the other top names is fellow Brit Mark Higgins and of course Toshi Arai, Karamjit Singh, Marcos Ligato, Ricardo Trivino, Manfred Stohl, Jani Paasonen, Daniel Sola and Gianluigi Galli.

Schedule:

Following a ceremonial start in Karlstad on Thursday evening, the rally begins in earnest on Friday morning when crews travel 85km north to the town of Hagfors and the central service area. On Leg One they will tackle five stages, including Granberget, which at 52 kilometres is the longest of the event. Saturday will see the drivers contest a further eight stages, before the final six tests on Sunday. The winning car is expected to cross the finish ramp back in Karlstad at 1638hrs on Sunday.

Hot tip:

Gronholm should take the win - providing the new 307 is up to it. If not expect Martin or Sainz to pounce...

 

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