Sebastien Ogier leads the 2016 Rally Sweden after and abbreviated first day despite opening the road in snowy conditions. The rally has been shortened due to lack of snow in the southern stages which affected the Super Special Stage initially planned to open the event. The 1.90km Karlstad test was abandoned before the start as were both passes through the 7.07km Kirkenaer stage, special stages 5 and 6.
The Volkswagen Motorsport VW Polo R WRC of the reigning champion took a 0.3 second lead out of the opening special stage but the Frenchman complained that he had to push hard to maintain an advantage while sweeping the snow from the route. Andreas Mikkelsen started off well, just 0.3 seconds behind the leader but fell down over the course of the first day of action. The #9 Polo R WRC started its fall on SS3 when he followed Ogier’s example and had an off with an un-expected water splash.
Ogier damaged a steering arm but dragged the stricken Polo to stage end where he and co-driver Julien Ingrassia effected repairs. Mikkelsen avoided damage but lost 17 seconds rejoining the road, he would be further delayed on SS8 where large accumulations of snow hobbled several front running cars. Jari-Matti Latvala didn’t even make it out of the first stage unscathed.
The Finn broke a drive shaft, restricting his Polo to front wheel drive only, which left him 23.1 seconds down on his team mate. The unfortunate VW man, who retired from round 1 of the championship, Rallye Monte-Carlo after damaging his suspension, languished in 37th place overall at the end of the day. There was no mid-day service on the opening leg of the rally which left Latvala to carry the problem all the way back to Rally HQ in Karlstad in the evening.
“The afternoon was far from easy,” said Ogier. “I knew that I would drop time on the second loop. However, the snow made far more challenging than expected.”
Latvala wasn’t alone though. The privately entered Ford Fiesta RS WRC of Henning Solberg suffered from gearbox and engine problems throughout the opening day to end seventh. Likewise Hyundai Motorsport’s main man from the Monte, Theirry Neuville struck early problems and limped his two wheel drive New Generation Hyundai i20 WRC into the service park with a six and a half minute mountain to climb from 26th overall.
Using the morning to build up a cushion against the pressure of playing snow plow for the field, Ogier claimed the first three stages and carried a 24.2 second advantage into the afternoon action. Thereafter, the leader failed to nett a stage. Instead Kris Meeke headed SS7, the second of the three Abu Dhabi Total World Rally Team Citroen DS3 WRCs coming in third at the hands of Craig Breen.
Meeke’s challenge would be all for naught, a rock concealed in the snow putting an end to his hopes in the Citroen. The French manufacturer had little to celebrate as even Breen was hampered by navigational issues in SS8 and dropped time.
A quick to adjust Kiwi took SS8 and SS9. Hayden Paddon rocketed to the top of the time sheets in his first outing in a New Generation i20. With Neuville struggling, Paddon headed the trio Hyundai Motorsport entries come the end of the day sitting second overall with Mads Ostberg in third place. Ostberg is followed by his M-Sport World Rally Team team mate Ott Tanak with Dani Sordo for Hyundai in fifth.
Paddon said, “It’s pleasing to be involved in such a close battle for second place but we’re still only in the early stages of this event so we’re not going to get carried away. Road position has played a big part in today’s stages. We knew that we’d have an advantage in the afternoon loop but, still, it’s nice to have capitalised on that. I was getting more confident in the car with each stage but there is still work to do to improve my feeling with the New Generation i20 WRC.
Mikkelsen dropped to sixth over the course of the day but is only 42 seconds off the rally lead and with the impressive list of issues which cropped up on the opening leg a rise due to another’s misfortune cannot be ruled out. Seventh went to the limping Fiesta of Henning Solberg, eighth to Craig Breen and ninth to Eric Camilli’s Fiesta. Tenth place overall went to Lorenzo Bertelli who sits only one minute ahead of the WRC 2 leader.
That leader was once again M-Sport’s Elfyn Evans. The Welsh driver dominated the opening stages of the Monte and went on to win the first round. Back for a second bite of the WRC2 apple, the former WRC spec driver built a 17.1 second lead over local driver Åhlin Fredrik who battled a sticking throttle early on. Grøndak Anders rounded out an all Ford Fiesta R5 top three in the second WRC class. Pontus Tidemand took fourth place in a Skoda Fabia R5 ahead of the first of the Citroen DS3 R5s at the hands of Emil Bergkvist.
“We’ve had a really good day,” Evans said at evening service. “It’s tough out there and I think everyone has been pushing really hard – myself included! The times have been a little up and down in places and I felt that I had more to give on the second stage this morning [SS3]. There was very changeable grip in there and it was difficult for me to read the road given my limited experience at this event, but it certainly got better after that. We’ve just been trying hard and really enjoying the driving.”
By far the stand out WRC2 performance came from the man who dominated WRC3 in January’s outing. Oli Christian Veiby took seventh after the first day having graduated from the Citroen DS3 R3T to an R5 spec Fabia.
Eyvind Brynildsen was battling in the top six of WRC2 early on but joined the list of drivers in both the 4WD classes who broke a drive shaft and ended up limping a 2WD Fiesta to service. Esapekka Lappi was another to tumble down the order after a spin in the penultimate stage of the day left him stuck, this dropped him from second overall to a gut wrenching ninth.
WRC3 saw Michel Fabre take all of the stages by virtue of the fact he is the only WRC3 entry to contest the Swedish event. Even so, the Sainteloc Junior Team entered Frenchman is still subject to all the rules of the rally and picked up a ten second penalty when he arrived a minute late to the time control at SS7 to start the afternoons action.
A stripped down Rally Sweden continues on Saturday with five stages from a planned eight. In total eight stages were cancelled prior to the rally getting underway while organisers opted to drop SS20 from the itinerary once racing got underway. Of the planned 331.21km of action, the weather, or lack thereof, has caused the abandonment of almost a third. 104.73km of stages, which include SS10, SS11, SS13, SS14 and SS15 on the original Saturday plan, will not be contested.