The FIA World Rally Championship‘s only ‘full’ snow event has had something of a problem coming up with the goods in recent years, but this year the gods of snow (well, the isobars surrounding Torsby) have more than delivered. Deep snow drifts, imposing snow banks and treacherous ice-capped crests litter each and every one of Rally Sweden’s 19 stages at the time of writing. It’s a welcome return to form and one which will make this already specialised event all the more demanding for the WRC regulars.
Traditionally an event which required an immense amount of specialised local knowledge, Rally Sweden has been forcibly democratized in recent years thanks to the efforts of Sebastian Ogier, but it remains a rally which is largely dominated by Scandinavians. This is primarily down to the skill set required to drive swiftly on compacted snow, not forgetting the dark art of being able to ‘bounce’ of carefully selected banks of snow without disappearing into the scenery (something rendered far, far trickier if the conditions warm).Conditions like these simply aren’t encountered by the vast majority of up-and-coming WRC drivers learning their craft, meaning it tends to be the locals or the prodigiously talented that do well here.
The fact that this year’s rally is likely to remain suitably chilly means that tyre choice will be less of a lottery, with the crews able to plump for full studs with confidence, safe in the knowledge that they’ll last the required distance. Consistent sub-zero temperatures should also negate the risks associated with running studded rubber on stages with scant snow, conditions which all too often leave the gravel bedrock exposed and make the already challenging stages even more demanding.
2018 Rally Sweden – The Stages
This year’s running of Rally Sweden promises a blend of old and new in terms of stage mileage, with the action opening with a traditional blast around the Karlstadt trotting track, scene of countless lurid slides and powdered overtakes over the years. Images of Sandro Munari doing his damnedest of keep a manically oversteering Stratos in check, and Bjorn Waldegård having a somewhat simpler time of it wrestling a Mk2 Escort, these are the images which will forever be associated with the trotting track – that and Thierry Neuville unceremoniously ripping a corner of his i20 WRC last year of course!
Rally Sweden is also unique in being the only current WRC round which straddles more than one country, in this case Norway. In fact all but one of Friday’s stages takes place across the border, which is great news for local crews like Andreas Mikkelsen and Henning Solberg, and even better news for the famously passionate Norwegian fans. Friday’s full roster of stages runs to a pair of runs through Hof-Finneskog, Svullrya and Rojden, then a final assault on the lone Swedish test of the day, Torsby.
Saturday and Sunday bring the crews to a smattering of classic Swedish offerings including Hagfors and Vargåsen, the latter home to Colin’s Crest and a firm fan favourite. Saturday’s full stage itinerary consists of twice runs through Torntop, Hagfors and Vargåsen, followed by another spin on the trotting track, and in a nod to classic Swedish night tests of years gone by, the 3.43km of Torsby. Sunday is a short even by the standards of the modern WRC, with just Likenäs (21.19km) run twice and the Power Stage, Torsby 2, this time in its full, 9.56km form.
2018 Rally Sweden – The Crews
Sebastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala have dominated Rally Sweden in recent years, so much so that you have to go all the way back to 2011 (when Mikko Hirvonen was still competing) to find the last time someone else occupied the top step of the podium. The pair remain the favourites to triumph in 2018 thanks to their performances in Monte Carlo two weeks ago, not forgetting that both know precisely what it takes to win on full snow stages.
Both Ott Tanak and Elfyn Evans will seek to build upon their respective Monte runs, with the Estonian the more likely to take the fight to Ogier and Latvala, particularly given his newfound form and desire to stamp his authority on the Toyota team. Indeed, the inter-team squabble between the leading Yaris drivers will be all the more intense for occurring on a rally ‘closer to home,’ and that’s before we even begin to consider the threat posed by the rapidly improving third car of Esapekka Lappi.
Evans likely still has some way to go before he’s able to feel completely at home hurling a WRC Car down snow covered stages, but then that’s hardly surprising given his background and nationality – precipitation tends to fall as rain rather than snow in his native Wales! That being said, a strong drive with an equally solid haul of points at the end of it will do wonders for his standing in the WRC and will do his title prospects no harm whatsoever.
There will be an even greater M-Sport presence in Sweden than usual thanks to the addition of Teemu Suninen, the young Finn having done enough to once again be entrusted with a Fiesta WRC. Suninen impressed here last year, overcoming the tricky conditions to bring his Fiesta R5 home in a solid tenth. The Ford presence will be bolstered by the addition of local hero and all round WRC legend, Henning Solberg. The Norwegian will get his first taste of new era WRC performance in Sweden, his new car turned out in his team’s traditional orange and black livery.
No single round served to expose the 2017 C3 WRC’s inherit flaws like Rally Sweden, with both Kris Meeke and Craig Breen floundering from snow bank to snow bank in an increasingly desperate attempt to remain in touch with the leaders. It’s still too early to ascertain whether this year’s car has been fully sorted in this regard, irrespective Meeke’s eventual strong Monte showing. There’s much riding on this particular trip to the Arctic circle for Citroen then, and we’ll only truly know whether the most experienced team in the WRC has ‘cracked’ it come Friday morning. Meeke, Breen and Mads Ostberg (‘super sub’ drafted in for a one-off appearance) have all been testing in suitably snowy conditions in the week leading up the rally itself. It’s enough to hope that things might have been turned around.
It’s easy to forget that Thierry Neuville looked to have last year’s Rally Sweden all but sewn up, until he made one of the most embarrassing errors of his professional career of course. Still, it does at least prove that Neuville has what it takes to take the fight to Ogier and Latvala on snow, something he’ll set out to do once again in 2018.
Andreas Mikkelsen might only have been in Hyundai overalls for a handful of months but already the Norwegian appears to be both relaxed and at home, harbingers of a strong season – or at least they would be if he could catch a break! Alternator failure (the result of an impromptu trip to a farmer’s courtyard) scuppered his Monte early on Friday, but Mikkelsen’s pace behind the wheel of the i20 has been clear to see. He’ll no doubt aim for note of the same on a rally he knows even better, albeit hopefully with more of a reward at the end.
The third and final i20 WRC belongs to Hayden Paddon. The Kiwi missed the Monte by dint of being forced to split his season with Dani Sordo, so Sweden will be the first chance he’ll get to improve his stock in the wake of a bruising 2017 campaign. Paddon will therefore have to walk a difficult tightrope, balancing the need to show he can bring a car home in one piece for solid points with the desire to prove he still has the speed to grab WRC events by the scruff of the neck and challenge for outright victory.
2018 Rally Sweden – WRC2
WRC2 boasts an especially strong lineup of talent from an ever increasing roster of teams, with the Skoda Fabia pairing of Pontus Tidemund and Christian Ole Veiby likely to set the pace, not forgetting the similar car of Lukasz Pieniazek. Hyundai’s rapidly improving R5 rally programme is set to be spearheaded by Jari Huttunen, the Finn once again entrusted with an i20 and expected to both build experience and drive development of the car forward.
2018 Rally Sweden – WRC Entry List
1 – Sebastian Ogier – Ford Fiesta WRC
2 – Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC
3 – Teemu Suninen – Ford Fiesta WRC
4 – Andreas Mikkelsen – Hyundai i20 WRC
5 – Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 WRC
6 – Hayden Paddon – Hyundai i20 WRC
7 – Jari-Matti Latvala – Toyota Yaris WRC
8 – Ott Tanak – Toyota Yaris WRC
9 – Esapekka Lappi – Toyota Yaris WRC
10 – Kris Meeke – Citroen C3 WRC
11 – Craig Breen – Citroen C3 WRC
12 – Mads Ostberg – Citroen C3 WRC
2018 Rally Sweden – WRC2 Entry List
1 – Pontus Tidemund – Skoda Fabia R5
2 – Christian Ole Veiby – Skoda Fabia R5
3 – Lukasz Pieniazek – Skoda Fabia R5
4 – Jari Huttunen – Hyundai i20 R5
5 – Takamato Katsuta – Ford Fiesta R5
6 – Hiroki Arai – Ford Fiesta R5
7 – Umberto Scandola – Skoda Fabia R5
8 – Radik Shaymiev – Ford Fiesta R5