Mikko Hirvonen starts his WRC 2010 season with a victory at Rally Sweden.
Mikko Hirvonen started his World Rally Championship title bid in the best way possible by beating Sebastien Loeb to victory in the Rally Sweden.
Jari-Matti Latvala claimed the final podium spot ahead of Dani Sordo, while high-profile Formula 1 convert Kimi Raikkonen reached the finish in 30th place despite losing half an hour stuck in a snow bank on Friday.
Although Loeb edged into a narrow lead over the opening stages, a change of differential setting on Hirvonen's Ford just before Friday lunch-time turned the Finn into a pace-setter.
Hirvonen hit the front shortly afterwards, and in the second half of the event he finally broke Loeb's challenge and pulled away. By Sunday morning the Citroen driver was admitting that he could not catch Hirvonen and would settle for second.
"It's been a very tough weekend and Mikko has done a perfect rally," Loeb said. "I made a little mistake yesterday, but even without this mistake I don't know [if we could have won] because we were unable to beat Mikko in the stages. He was really strong, he deserves this victory."
Hirvonen was thrilled to start the year on top, especially as he had successfully managed his tyres despite a lack of snow on many stages ripping studs from the rubber all weekend.
Sebastien Ogier took fifth for Citroen Junior in only his second ever snow rally. The Frenchman was the 'best of the rest' all weekend, fending off returning ex-champion Marcus Gronholm until the Finn's Stobart Ford tumbled down the order with electrical problems on Friday afternoon.
Petter Solberg's season got off to a disastrous start. A spin on the Thursday night superspecial set the tone for a weekend in which he was rarely happy with his new Citroen C4. He lost several minutes with a crash on Friday and could only finish ninth.
Raikkonen was the focus of huge attention throughout the rally, but his incident-packed run to 30th underlined how tough his career change will be. However although he had a few more excursions after his Friday accident, he also set a promising sixth-fastest time on SS15.
"Of course we are not happy, we hit the snow bank and we got stuck on the first day," Raikkonen said. "But we improved a lot and we got here. It was definitely not an easy rally to start with. But I got more experience with the car and the notes."