x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Can anyone put the skids on Loeb?

Whether one of Loeb's would-be contenders has the hunger, ability, speed and luck to step up and lay claim to his crown remains to be seen.

Finally, there is a plus side to the seasonal cold snap which has engulfed mainland Europe in a frozen blanket of winter whiteness: there will be no shortage of snow and ice at Rally Sweden. With a field approaching 60 drivers, including present, former and potential world champions, the opening round of the 2010 World Rally Championship (WRC) could well be its hardest fought.

It will certainly be its coldest: temperatures at the Hagfors airfield service park, the rally's home base, often drop below minus 25ºC at this time of year. With drivers' in-car heaters cranked up to maximum, the action at the head of the field should also be fiery. After winning in Norway last year, the six-time world champion Sebastien Loeb is aiming to upset the Scandinavian fraternity again by beating them on their own patch.

But with Finland's Mikko "Iceman" Hirvonen and BP Ford Abu Dhabi teammate Jari-Matti Latvala, who won this event, two years ago, as well as Marcus Gronholm all chasing glory, topping the podium will not be easy for Citroen's record-breaker. After throwing in Norway's Solberg brothers, Petter and Henning, for added spice, the presence of the former Formula One world champion Kimi Raikkonnen in the Swedish rally stew provides another intriguing ingredient.

Indeed, Sweden is likely to offer a tantalising glimpse into the wider championship picture. For while the opening round represents the 13-event calendar's only snow fixture, the year's other rounds - eight of which fall on gravel, the other four on tarmac - should foster increased competition. As sealed surface specialists, Loeb and Citroen will expect to dominate on asphalt stages in Bulgaria, Germany, France and Spain.

Principal rivals Ford, on the other hand, will look to take charge on the loose surface gravel rounds in Mexico, Jordan, Turkey, New Zealand, Portugal, Finland, Japan and Wales to boost their fight for the drivers' and manufacturers' titles. With regulation changes for the new season meaning rally organisers can mix up their primarily one-surface events by throwing in a random stage with another type of track, the plot thickens.

Drivers, far from finding variable conditions a challenge, usually resent spectator-friendly initiatives such as mixed surface stages. Altering the track radically changes car set-ups and the WRC's behind-the-wheel perfectionists detest losing even a slither of control. Control is one aspect which every driver will seek in Sweden. Winter driving necessitates a different approach: the standard technique being to "lean" cars into the snowbanks at the edge of tracks, thus guiding them round corners at maximum speed.

The studded tyres are not much thicker than a mountain-bike equivalent, but the grip they offer - especially in the Arctic conditions expected this week - is unrivalled. First on the road as champion, Loeb will lead the way. The Frenchman could lose valuable time tomorrow. But whether one of Loeb's would-be contenders has the hunger, ability, speed and luck to step up and lay claim to his crown remains to be seen.

Having finished on the podium in 22 of the last 27 rallies, Hirvonen's remarkable consistency makes him the leading candidate. At 29, Hirvonen must make his move now: he will not want to finish runner-up again. For if Loeb can claim a seventh consecutive world title, many expect rally's finest to abdicate his reign. Far better, for Hirvonen anyway, would be a maiden championship to send him packing. Ten months and 13 mouth-watering battles await. emegson@thenational.ae