Gronholm keeps champagne on ice for Loeb fight

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The Independent Online

Sebastien Loeb is predicting a flat-out scrap with his world championship rival Marcus Gronholm in a snowy Swedish Rally this weekend. Loeb has a score to settle with Gronholm after the Ford driver won round one in Monte Carlo to take an early lead in the world championship.

Loeb could finish only second after a five-minute penalty for crashing on day one but he is determined to make up for that this weekend when he claims he is the underdog.

The Kronos Racing driver said: "The favourite is Marcus Gronholm. I'm dreaming of a straight battle with him this year, in thrilling conditions as they can be on this rally.

"This means sheet ice on the ground with high and thick snow banks on the side to lean on. As the grip is consistent and excellent, you feel free to push hard and almost over-drive, because you know you can rely on the snow banks sometimes.

"I hope for a big fight like that - and we will try to win it. Last year, given the condition of the roads, it was very hard to match Gronholm or [Subaru's Petter] Solberg. This time it should be closer."

Gronholm, like Loeb a two-time world champion, has an extra reason to push for maximum points again in Sweden. The Finn celebrates his 38th birthday on Sunday and has a perfect party lined up.

He said: "There's no doubt the best way to celebrate my birthday would be with champagne on the winner's podium, but we have a lot of work to do before I can think about that.

"Sweden is the best rally in the championship when the conditions are good. To drive flat out on the snow and ice with such good grip from the studded tyres is really enjoyable. The car seems to float across the surface."

Solberg is keen to muscle in on the fight between Loeb and Gronholm, in a rally he won for the first time last year. Like Loeb, Solberg's championship quest got off to a troubled start when he retired in Monte Carlo with mechanical problems but the Norwegian is confident he can hit back.

"At the moment it's very exciting to see how the car and set-up perform in competitive conditions," he said. "Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to show how good the car was in Monte Carlo but the feeling is good.

"I hope we have a good chance to get the same result as last year in Sweden. This would just be brilliant, because there will be a lot of people I know and a lot of support from Norway."

The rally, with 19 stages and a competitive distance of 349km (218 miles), starts in Hagfors today.