Loeb ready for title defence

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KARLSTAD, February 9 – Defending World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb is taking nothing for granted as the 2011 season starts here Thursday with the new regulations and the new cars putting his unfavoured wintry conditions to the back of his mind.

The Swedish event is the only true snow race on the 2011 World Rally Championship (WRC) 13 leg circuit, but France’s Loeb, who has won the last seven drivers titles was more concerned about the effects of the close season revamp than weather conditions.

"I’ll be taking it one race at a time because with a new car, new rules and a new teammate that’s a great deal of change and a great deal of unknowns," said Loeb, who will defend his title in a brand new Citroen DS3, rather than the Citroen C4 of the past four seasons.

"The new car suits me, its been reliable in the trials, which is encouraging, and I was also agreeably surprised by the motor, the balance and the handling. All that makes me feel everything will go well," said Loeb, who turns 37 on February 26.

Loeb added that he expected Ford to do well in Sweden, explaining that everyone knew he himself was more adept on gravel, a surface that makes up nine of the 13 legs.

The defending champion also insisted there was no pecking order with new teammate Sebastien Ogier.

The race features 11 specials over 351km, which are each run twice on snow which is too slippery to walk on but where the cars are expected to hit a hair-raising 200km/ph.

The line-up for the rally in the Karlstad region, which concludes on Sunday, will feature Norway’s Citroen driver the 2003 world champion Petter Solberg, who despite limited trials in the new car is a proven master on the snow.

Solberg can also look forward to two specials in his homeland on day one. He took eight podiums last season to come third overall, but is however without a win since 2005.

Also in the Citroen line-up is 2007 Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen, who came tenth last year in his second rally season.

But Ford have won this rally since 2006 and certain pundits feel Finland’s Jari-Matti Latvala, runner-up to Loeb in the overall last year and also winner here in Sweden in 2009, will be hard to beat this time out in his Fiesta RS.

Another Ford pilot, last year’s runaway winner Mikko Hirvonen will seek a repeat of his success, which might put his disappointing season behind him, while Swede PG Andersson also does well on home snow.

Technical rule changes to car requirements will mean more reliance on driver skill and marks the end of certain automatic functions. The cars will also be shorter but broader, making them more agile on challenging turns.

The action gets underway at a gala Thursday night with the 14 cars that have chosen to take part here, set for punishing conditions in challenging stages on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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