Sweden plays host to World Rally Champs

The World Rally Championships (WRC) returns to Sweden on Friday after a two-year long hiatus. Defending champion Sebastien Loeb says he is looking forward to racing in the snow ahead of the first rally of the 2010 championship.

“I’ve always loved the snow in Sweden and Norway. If the conditions are right it could be the greatest rally of the season with some real excitement,” said the French Citroen driver.

Loeb edged Finnish Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen to last year’s title by a single point to claim his sixth straight WRC crown.

Hirvonen finished second to Loeb in the Rally of Norway last February and was leading the championship going into the season-ending Great Britain Rally in Wales,

only to see the title slip through his fingers back into the arms of Loeb.

“I think that Sebastien will be difficult to beat but my objective remains the title,” said Hirvonen. “I feel stronger than in 2009. I have one more year’s experience. I don’t want to lose again.”

The line-up for the rally in the Karlstad region, which concludes on Sunday, will feature three other former winners in the form of Finland’s Jari-Matti Latvala (2008), his compatriot Marcus Gronholm (2000, 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007) and Norway’s Petter Solberg (2005).

The return to the circuit of two-time world champion Gronholm at the age of 41 has captured the imagination of the sport’s nostalgists.

Gronholm retired from the sport in 2007 but has returned to drive a Ford Focus in this year’s championship.

“Sweden was always one of my favourite rallies,” Gronholm said. “During my retirement, I often thought I’d like to race the Sagen again, which is a legendary special stage.”

The rally’s 21 stages will also mark the WRC debut of former Formula One world champion Kimi Raikkonen, but the Finn has warned his supporters not to expect fireworks from the start.

“We don’t really know what to expect,” said the former Ferrari star, who won the F1 world title in 2007.

“We’ll try to get in the points at the start and then progress over the course of the season. I have to get used to the car.”

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