Mikko Hirvonen started his World Rally Championship title bid in the best way possible by beating Sebastien Loeb to victory in 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 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 lunchtime turned the Finn into the pacesetter.
Hirvonen hit the front shortly afterward, 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 tires despite a lack of snow on many stages ripping studs from the rubber all weekend.
"Fantastic, absolutely fantastic," Hirvonen said. "I'm really happy it's over after all these stages. It was so bad for the tires, you can't imagine how nervous I was on this last stage."
Citroen number two Dani Sordo was the revelation of the first half of the rally, winning the opening superspecial and then staying close behind the leaders despite his relative lack of snow experience. But his pace tailed off on Saturday, and he lost third to Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala after having to stop on SS15 to remove snow shields which had been left on the engine in error.
Latvala was relieved to secure third following a lackluster start to the event, while Sordo took solace from the potential he had shown – and the fact that starting fourth on the dusty roads in the next round in Mexico could be an advantage.
"Apart from that small problem and a spin, everything was really good," Sordo said. "I'm really happy with the performance on the first day. Fourth position on this rally is a good start and we will see in Mexico."
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.
Gronholm was frustrated with his pace and soon realized he should have tested more before his comeback, but did win his beloved Sagen stage on Saturday – one of several very quick times that he set in the latter stages, even though he had little chance of getting back into the top 20.
"I need a lot of practice and more mileage in the car," Gronholm admitted.
Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson had consistent runs to sixth and seventh in Stobart's other two cars, Wilson battling with Mads Ostberg until various dramas dropped the Adapta Subaru back to eighth.
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 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."
The first round of the new separate S2000 contest saw a dominant victory for P-G Andersson, whose Skoda was unstoppable from the outset. Andreas Mikkelsen was second in the order, but was not registered for points, so fellow Ford driver Janne Tuohino was officially class runner-up. With Sweden Andersson's only confirmed event for now, the result was an early boost for Tuohino's title ambitions.
Patrik Flodin dominated in the Production class, rebuffing a mid-rally challenge from fellow Subaru man Anders Grondal.
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford 3h09m30.4s
2. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 42.3s
3. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 1m15.4s
4. Dani Sordo Citroen + 2m41.6s
5. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 4m15.3s
6. Henning Solberg Ford + 5m23.4s
7. Matthew Wilson Ford + 7m53.9s
8. Mads Ostberg Subaru + 9m22.2s
9. Petter Solberg Citroen + 10m17.5s
10. P-G Andersson Skoda + 12m08.9s