The traditional white, snowy backdrop to Sweden’s traditional February WRC round is somewhat incongruous to the rally circus which is about to descend on the picturesque scenery surrounding the host town of Karlstad. Rally Sweden has been a near guaranteed fixture since the sport’s inception, however there are signs that it could be the last time there is even a world championship for them to host.
Amidst the cataclysm of BMW threatening to derail Prodrive’s Mini programme and negotiations over a replacement for North One breaking down, the usual faces are still making the trip to the only snow based rally of the year, a traditional hunting ground for the Blue Oval. The icy conditions are Sebastien Loeb‘s only ‘weakness’, with only a sole win eight years ago being his best result. In 2008 and 2011 Ford were even able to lock out the podium, such was their dominance over their French rivals. 2004 is also their only win here, albeit with their sister marque Peugeot being far more successful with the legendary Marcus Gronholm- a driver far more at home here than Loeb ever will be.
“It’s perhaps not a surface on which I excel, but I love competing here,” he said. “It’s actually one of the season’s most enjoyable rallies. If you look at my record here in previous rallies, it has often been the conditions that have made things more difficult for me.”
“When I went off the road in 2008, it wasn’t really a winter rally as the above-zero temperatures had turned the ice into mud. Last year, I finished sixth but lost any hope of winning after clearing the road of freshly-fallen snow on the first day and then picking up a puncture… When the stages have roads covered with a good layer of sheer ice, I think I’m just as fast as my rivals.”
Even with his natural ability, Loeb has not been able to challenge his new team-mate Mikko Hirvonen for victory, with the Finn picking up maximum points in the last two years the championship has visited Sweden. However, with Hirvonen defecting to Citroen for this year, he is more confident than ever of securing a good result next weekend.
“Mikko has joined the team with his own experience and he has helped improve the set-up of the DS3 WRC on ice,” he added. “I tried his set-up and I immediately felt confident. We have made a lot of progress compared with 2011.”
Hirvonen was outclassed by his world championship team-mate for most of the season opening Rally Monte Carlo, however with Sweden being one of his best events of the year, he expects to be in the mix for victory this time.
“The first thing would say is that I think we have a car that can win. But even though we have done well as this rally in the last four years, it is still going to be a difficult challenge,” he said. “After winning the last two editions of Rally Sweden, obviously my goal is to win again. I think that it will be a more closely-fought race than at Monte Carlo, simply because we will all have the same tyres from start to finish. Personally, it is a new challenge, which is very motivating for me.”
Ford are a team with a prestigious history at this event, currently holding a record of 5 consecutive wins to add to their success with native driver Bjorn Waldegard in 1978. The Nordic feel to the works team will certainly do them no harm, especially with the rally route crossing into Norway and – quite literally – passing Petter Solberg‘s doorstep.
“The farmhouse overlooks the special stage,” he said. “I can stand at the door and see the road, [so] at least I know the road well.”
Much like his notable record of being the last world champion pre-Loeb, the Norwegian driver is also the last driver to win this event in anything other than a Ford, taking victory at the wheel of his former works Subaru Impreza back in 2005. It may have been seven years since he last sipped champagne from the top step of the podium, but next weekend presents him with the best chance to date to finally get back to the top step.
“I have only two days of testing in which to get used to [the car] on snow and ice, but I'm not worried. Asphalt was the surface on which I expected difficulties in settling into the car, but I felt comfortable immediately at Rallye Monte-Carlo. Ford has a superb recent record in this rally and Jari-Matti and I want to extend that.”
After the disastrous start to the season, Jari-Matti Latvala will be looking to put his retirement in Monte Carlo behind him, and has set himself a more realistic aim of collecting a Top 3 finish. “That's my target. I was happy after the first day of my pre-event test. I concentrated on perfecting the car set-up, and that's now clear in my head. I was a little too aggressive with the settings last year so I've modified them slightly,” he said.
The elephant in the room is making a big splash off the stages, but when the timer starts, Mini could struggle to impose themselves in the fight for another podium place. The Countryman WRC is unproven on the slippery snow of Sweden, and tarmac specialist Dani Sordo has never been a fan of the surface. Alongside him in the merry-go-round second seat is former JWRC champion Patrik Sandell, who is looking to impress at his home event. He received backing from former Swedish rally drivers Waldegard, Stig Blomqvist and Tomas Radstrom to compete here this weekend, and has no intention of letting them down.
“This is a fantastic opportunity,” he said. “Knowing that all my idols since I was just a kid are coming together like this to support me is incredible. I think this piece of the puzzle is what I need to take the final step into the WRC class.”
There are other news faces this weekend – former PWRC champion Nasser Al-Attiyah begins his campaign in a semi-works Citroen DS3, after skipping Monte Carlo due to the clashing Dakar Rally. On paper his prospects look somewhat bleak – the format of the lower classes of the sport allowed him to skip the event in the past, and the few results he did score only just scraped him into the points in his own class, so expect an uphill battle for the Qatari driver to get on the scoresheet here.
Ford on the other hand have some more promising drivers backing up their works duo. As in Monte Carlo, Ott Tanak and Evgeny Novikov will be nominated to score points for the second M-Sport team, and the addition of Adapta World Rally Team to the Ford fold brings in another two talented young Norwegian drivers in Mads Ã˜stberg and Eyvind Brynildsen. The duo live in the same village of Valler, not far from where the stages cross into Norway, and after Brynildsen lost his drive with Skoda at the end of last season, is hoping a good result here can lead to more opportunities.
“To compete in a World Rally Car is the dream of every rally driver, and what can be better than to do that in cooperation with the neighbour,” said the 24-year-old Brynildsen. “I will prepare well for the task, and at the starting line of the shakedown I will have done 250 kilometres of testing. I will do my very best to have a good result in the rally. I hope that this is the start of something that can be [extended] to more WRC rallies later on. We are working hard to get a budget.”
The M-Sport list continues further, with European Rally Championship regular MichaÅ‚ SoÅ‚owow making his seventh appearance in the event, as well as Finn Jari Ketomaa in a self-run Fiesta. While Henning Solberg returns for Go Fast Energy World Rally Team, there has already been a blow for the independent Ford team, with second driver Matthew Wilson having to withdraw through an ankle injury sustained in training.
The SWRC are also back supporting the main series, albeit with only two of the drivers from Monte Carlo returning for the second round. Per-Gunnar Andersson will be hoping bad luck doesn’t strike twice for his Proton, after retiring from the lead in the season opener. Eventual winner Craig Breen will also be present to try and maintain his championship lead, while Giandomenico Basso makes way for Alister McRae in the second Proton. Promising New Zealander Hayden Paddon will be making his first appearance of the season in a Skoda Fabia S2000.
A couple of interesting footnotes will come in the form of Skoda Motorsport once again, with Sebastien Ogier being partnered by Andreas Mikkelsen in S2000 spec machines. Also, yet another Ford has been entered for a rather more unusual driver – multiple Swedish Touring Car Champion Richard Goransson. The Swede has already proven he has the talent to do well at his home event, after finishing second in the Group N category last year and 17th overall. This time he will be driving a WRC spec Mini Countryman, and is looking forward to his second WRC appearance. “This is going to be the biggest challenge in my career and I would lie if I didn't say that I am nervous,” he said.
As much as I wish I could dwell on the quaint anecdote of a touring car driver taking on the world’s best rally drivers, the ever present danger of collapse will be lingering over the paddock all weekend. Something that may not be lingering around the paddock this weekend however is TV cameras – with the Eurosport deal collapsing, the sport is without a promoter and without any TV rights signed. The FIA have guaranteed Stage 1 Technology will remain to supply tracking data for the entire season, but without any international television coverage, BMW’s threat to quit the sport so soon after joining is beginning to look more sensible than it is malicious.
Loeb, Hirvonen, Solberg & Co could all take 25 points away from Sweden next Sunday. However, as things stand, it seems no-one is truly going to win this weekend.