Makinen's declared aim for 1996 is to win the World Drivers' title, and Team Mitsubishi Ralliart has committed its full resources to help him achieve his dream of becoming World Champion this year. Makinen is contesting all nine rounds of the World Championship this year in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution III, and victory in Sweden would give a considerable boost to his chances.
After finishing first and second on this event last year with Kenneth Eriksson and Makinen, Mitsubishi is again confident of success on the first round this weekend.
Mitsubishi is expecting fierce competition on this year's Swedish Rally with strong entries from Toyota, Ford and Subaru. The entry list is one of the most impressive seen in the World Rally Championship for many seasons, with 15 world-class FIA seeded drivers due to tackle the event tomorrow.
Mitsubishi has also traditionally dominated the Group N category for standard production cars, winning for the past six years, and again the Japanese manufacturer is pinning its hopes on last year's winner, local star Kenneth Backlund in a standard Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution III. Backlund's Ralliart Sweden car will be joined in the class by a pair of similar Lancers from Ralliart Germany, driven by rising German star Uwe Nittell and Irishman Richie Holfeld.
After completing a pre-event shakedown, leading Mitsubishi driver Tommi Makinen declared: "We have done a lot of testing over the winter, and the car - which was so good last year - is now even better. There will be a big fight on this event with top class entries from Toyota, Ford and Subaru, but I am very confident."
Team Ralliart Mitsubishi Director Andrew Cowan added: "Tommi is totally relaxed, very confident and, after a good shakedown, very pleased with his Lancer. This year he has no pressure; he knows the car well, performed superbly on this rally last year, and his target is to win. I'm confident that Tommi will do very, very well."
Favourite for the Group N crown in his Ralliart Sweden Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution III, Kenneth Backlund said: "I won last year and this is my home event, so I will try very hard to repeat that performance."
Backlund enjoyed a pleasant surprise at the pre-event Mitsubishi press conference when he was presented with the Mitsubishi "Driver of the Year" award by Mitsubishi Motor Sport Supervisor Mr. Iwao Kimata. The award is made every year for outstanding motor sport performance in a Mitsubishi decided jointly by Mitsubishi Motor Corporation and Ralliart. Mr. Kimata cited Backlund's performance on the Swedish Rally last year when, as a nominated Mitsubishi driver, he won the Group N class for standard cars.
Said Mr. Kimata: "As a nominated driver who had to support Mitsubishi in the FIA World Manufacturers' title on that event, Kenneth was under a lot of pressure but performed very professionally, and that is why we have presented this special award to him."
Backlund will face friendly competition in Group N this year from fellow Mitsubishi Lancer driver Uwe Nittell, who promised: "I will do my best and I hope to have a good result. I am looking forward to this rally and I like the conditions here."
Nittell is set to contest at least six rounds of the World Championship in 1996 in an attempt to repeat Portuguese driver Rui Madiera's success last year when he won the Group N World Championship convincingly for Mitsubishi in a Lancer Evolution III.
All of the 101 competitors - 18 of which will drive Mitsubishi, making it the most popular choice of car - who are due to take the start of the 45th Swedish Rally at 08:00 from Karlstad tomorrow face the challenge of 27 special stages covered in deep snow with extremely slippery and icy conditions. Temperatures are expected to dip below minus 20 degrees Celsius tonight, rising to just minus 10 tomorrow.
The total stage distance of 496 km, in an overall route of 1643 km, will be
tackled over three days, finishing back in Karlstad on Sunday, February 11, at