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This week's Swedish Rally (7 - 10 February) lays claim to the tag of being the most specialised round of the 2008 FIA World Rally Championship by virtue of its date in the middle of the Scandinavian winter. And despite the vagaries of climate change which each year inspire pre-event debates about how icy and snowy the series' only all-winter round will be, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team's drivers know they will encounter conditions here that will not be found elsewhere during the season.
After a relatively snow-free opening to the championship on Rallye Monte Carlo last month, purists will dream of ice-bound loose surface tracks, huge snow banks lining the roads and numbing cold plunging in excess of -20ÂșC. Teams must wait to see if that winter wonderland materialises, but Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila must again focus on the world of skinny studded tyres, anti-snow glare glasses and heated driving boots.
A traditional pure winter rally in the barren countryside of the Värmland region of central Sweden places huge demands on man and machine. The team's all-Finish driver line-up will feel comfortable having grown up in such conditions. But keeping their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars at peak performance in the unrelenting cold requires huge resolve and determination from technicians forced to lie outside in the snow in such extremes.
Winter has yet to properly arrive around the rally base in Karlstad, but both Hirvonen and Latvala enjoy the challenge of winter driving - using the tungsten-tipped steel studs protruding from Pirelli's tyres to bite into the icy surface to provide amazing grip while 'leaning' their cars into the snow banks that line the forest tracks to guide them around corners at maximum speed. Unsurprisingly, the event suits northern Europeans and only one non-Nordic driver has won here in its 45-year history.
Hirvonen, second on Rallye Monte Carlo, has five previous starts here to his name and finished third in 2007. The 27-year-old won the championship's last winter rally in Norway in 2007. "Everyone is asking if I feel I'm the favourite," he said. "There are a few possible winners and I'm one of them, but I don't regard myself as the favourite. There's a little pressure, but I felt pressure in Rallye Monte Carlo and had a good result there. This is the first rally that I'm really thinking I have to win if I want to fight for the drivers' title.
"I hope the conditions are full winter. If there's a lot of snow and ice then Pirelli's tyres will work well. Reliability will also be important because there is no traditional 30-minute service in the middle of the day, just a 15-minute remote service using only spare parts carried in the car. I don't agree with that because if a car has a minor problem early in the morning then a driver can be stuck with it for the rest of the day. But the Focus is a reliable car so I'm not too concerned," added Hirvonen.
This is Latvala's fourth Swedish Rally and the 22-year-old is hoping the snow and ice arrives in time. "A proper winter rally is great fun. I've driven many snow rallies and the feeling of driving fast in winter is one that I really enjoy. The conditions are more forgiving and the car spends more time sideways than on a gravel rally, because that style helps to get the car to turn into bends," he said.
"It's not so easy when the conditions aren't so good. A lack of snow isn't too much of a problem but if there is no ice and the gravel comes through the surface, then it can rip out the studs from the tyres and destroy them. Where the lack of snow becomes a problem is if a driver needs to use the snowbanks. If you carry too much speed into a bend you can lean into the snow banks to guide the car round the corner. But if they are small and soft, when the rear of the car hits the bank it can drag the front in as well. It's important to keep the front wheels turned away from the bank to avoid that," he explained.
Driving a third official Focus RS and making his Swedish debut is Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and co-driver Michael Orr. "It's difficult to think about how I will approach the rally itself. I've only driven on snow and ice for one brief test about a year ago and so have little experience. However, it's clear that it will be completely different to asphalt or gravel," said 35-year-old Al Qassimi.
"The right approach will only come from as much mileage on the rally as possible. We'll start at a steady pace to understand the conditions and how the car works in them and build from there. I gather that the driving technique on snow and ice is to keep the wheels spinning so the studs cut into the ice as much as possible, but of course I won't be able to develop that until I arrive for the rally," he added.
* Five other Focus RS cars will start the rally. Gigi Galli / Giovanni Bernacchini and Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud will be nominated for points by the Stobart VK M-Sport team, with Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin driving a third car for the squad. There will also be privately-entered cars for Andreas Mikkelsen / Ola Floene and Peter Van Merksteijn / Hans Van Beek.
* As part of the sport's new tyre regulations, BP Ford Abu Dhabi will have just one tyre pattern available from new tyre partner, Pirelli. The all-new Sottozero is available in a narrow size with long studs to penetrate the snow and bite into the ice beneath. Each car can carry two spares.
* Following the rally the team has a four-day test gravel test planned in the south of France. Hirvonen will drive initially on 14 - 15 February with Latvala taking over for the final two days.
There are major changes for 2008. The main service park, previously in Hagfors, has been relocated to Karlstad to form a rally village with the headquarters and the super special stage, using the city's trotting track and ice hockey arena. Many of the stages have changed too, with just six of the 20 tests following the same format as in 2007, although most of the others are familiar from previous years. The action begins with a super special stage at the trotting track on Thursday evening before Friday's opening day visits the western part of the Värmland region for the first time since 2001. Saturday and Sunday's tests are clustered around Hagfors with all the more northerly stages missing from this year's itinerary. All three days include a remote service midway through. Sunne hosts Friday's break with Hagfors the location for Saturday and Sunday. Drivers face 20 stages in total, with all 10 venues used twice, covering 340.24km in a total route of 1440.08km.
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