Finland's Harri Rovanpera captured the biggest win of his career here Sunday
Rovanpera grabs first of win of career at Rally of Sweden

KARLSTAD, Sweden, Feb 11 (AFP) - Finland's Harri Rovanpera captured the biggest win of his career here Sunday with a superb triumph in the Rally of Sweden.

The 34-year-old Peugeot driver won the first World Rally Championship race of his career after mastering difficult snowy conditions to come home ahead of the field in 3hr 27min 1.1sec.

Sweden's Thomas Radstrom was second in a Mitsubishi Carisma, 27.9sec behind, while Spaniard Carlos Sainz was third in his Ford Focus, 37sec behind Rovanpera.

Rovanpera, whose previous best finishes were third places in the 1999 Rally of Great Britain and the Finland Rally last year, benefited from the retirements of several rivals during the three-day event.

Rovanpera had started the day with four-time world champion and compatriot Tommi Makinen breathing down his neck in second place.

But Makinen's challenge finished when he lost control of his Mitsubishi and rolled over, leaving Rovanpera to seize his first career win in the championship.

"This first victory of my life has been fabulous," Rovanpera said afterwards. "Father Christmas has come a little late for me this year but what a present he brought.

"The car was great from start to finish without any real problems. It's the best car I have ever driven."

Several drivers expected to be in the running for this year's championship will want to put Sweden behind them as quickly as possible.

Finland's Marcus Gronholm, the defending world champion, finished pointless after pulling out on Friday while Britons Colin McRae in a Ford Focus and Richard Burns in a Subaru Impreza were also unable to mount a charge for the podium.

Gronholm's race was a disaster. He had been hoping to ignite his championship campaign here after pulling out of the Monte Carlo Rally in January.

McRae's hopes were effectively buried on Friday, when he ploughed into a snowdrift leaving him more than three minutes behind.

Although he managed to win seven of the 17 special stages, he eventually had to settle for seventh place, nearly four-and-a-half minutes down.

Burns never recovered after his car plunged into snow on Friday, leaving him some 13 minutes behind. He eventually finished in 16th position, 10:58.8 behind.