2018 Rally Sweden: Analysis – What a difference a year makes!

Thierry Neuville Rally Sweden 2018
Credit: Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT arrived at 2018 Rally Sweden, the second round of the FIA World Rally Championship, as undisputed favourites; the Yaris was birthed on roads like this, all three of its drivers are ‘from this neck of the woods,’ and its team leader won here in convincing fashion just 12 months ago.

That things went so badly awry for Tommi Makinen’s team says much about the unpredictable nature of Rally Sweden, and also the immensely competitive nature of the WRC in its present guise.

That Rally Sweden served up an especially large helping of snow this year rather set the tone for the event.

The abundance of snow on the all of the stages ensured that running first on the road effectively became the kiss of death as far as fastest stage times were concerned.

This led to dark mutterings throughout the service park, though not as much as the decision by the rally organisers to run a field of historic rally cars through many of the weekend stages.

This was only an issue as said historics ran the ultra-skinny tyres designed to cut through to the gravel bedrock beneath the ice, the kind of rubber that was a fixture of Rally Sweden for decades.

It meant that the WRC crews on their wider tyres struggled to make progress, with those entering the stages first effectively having to widen the ruts generated by the classic runners, and shedding time hand-over-fist as a result.

The glut of snow, coupled with gripes about running order and classic competitors on different tyres, promoted several drivers higher up the leaderboard than they might initially have expected to be.

It also dealt Toyota’s chances of dominating the podium a hammer blow from which they would never recover, with Ott Tanak’s blast through the opening stage of Friday, Hof-Finneskog, proving to be a false dawn.

The Estonian’s second place starting order meant he was confronted by virginal snow on most of the opening stages, and he therefore struggled to retain a foothold at the top of the table, slipping from second to seventh on the first run through Rojden.

The normally calm and demure Tanak was animated to the point of apoplexy at the end, even telling the event organisers to ‘go screw themselves.’ Tanak wrongly believed that part of the stage hadn’t been properly ploughed prior to his run and that he was therefore compromised yet further, and while he later calmed down and even apologised, there was no denying that his outburst set the tone for much of the opening loop, certainly as far as those crews who were running earlier on the road were concerned.

Tanak would go onto set more fastest stage times than any other driver but, thanks to a mixture of poor luck, poor road order and a poorly executed attempt at passing the ailing C3 WRC of Kris Meeke on SS13, finished the event down in ninth.

The incident with Citroen’s struggling lead driver was an especially bizarre one, with the Northern Irishman attempting to recover from a trip into the snow banks on Saturday afternoon.

Tanak, clearly in a hurry and loath to wait for a more suitable passing place, dived alongside the sickly C3 within moments of catching it, only to find that two into one simply wasn’t going to work.

He dropped nearly a minute and a half and plummeted to the bottom half of the top ten.

Craig Breen Rally Sweden 2018
Credit: Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

Toyota’s hopes of a repeat victory with Latvala were similarly dashed, though here road order was only partly to blame. Latvala is famed throughout the service park for being warm, welcoming and filled with a very un-Finnish bonhomie, but also for his pace being susceptible to seemingly insignificant car setup details.

This came back to haunt him with vengeance on Friday’s running, the older Finn complaining bitterly off poor differential settings and a front driveshaft issue, both of which blunted his ultimate pace.

It conspired to rob him, Toyota and his thousands of fans of a repeat of 2017’s ecstatic celebrations, though he was at least able to grind out a seventh-place finish by the end of Sunday’

The dramas and frustrations befalling Tanak and Latvala meant that Esapekka Lappi once again found himself leading the Toyota charge, and he stepped up to the plate in emphatic fashion.

Never less than spellbindingly quick on the tricky roads (and despite a few trips into the looming snow banks), the Yaris pilot once again demonstrated that he’s something of an old head on young shoulders, putting the Power Stage embarrassments of Monte Carlo firmly behind him to end the rally fourth, best of the Toyotas, and a result made all the sweeter for coming at Hayden Paddon’s expense. Lappi even took the maximum haul of 5 bonus points for winning the Power Stage, underscoring a very satisfying weekend indeed.

Playing the role of de-facto snow-plough proved nothing if not contentious and prompted dark mutterings from drivers representing all 4 manufacturers, none more so than Sebastien Ogier.

The Frenchman came to Sweden with high hopes having won here in the past, but in truth, he was never a factor and wasn’t able to demonstrate his true pace, largely thanks to his disadvantageous road position and the impact of the classic rally runners on the stages.

The reigning champion’s thunderous mood reached its apex on Sunday when the Frenchman conspired with his team to take as many championship points from a difficult weekend as mathematically possible.

Clearly sick of being unable to challenge for positions, Ogier opted to miss his slot for the Power Stage, in a swoop ensuring he’d no longer have to plough his own furrow.

The move wasn’t without risk; the constant snowfall and threat of time penalties for missing his slot were both a factor, though the latter could be largely offset by Elfyn Evans’ position one position further up the order, and M-Sport’s number 2 was ultimately forced to give up his position (and point) for the good of his team mate.

In the end, it came down to maths, lots of maths. M-Sport calculated that a little under 25 minutes would be required in order for their lead driver to have the best possible chance at a decent haul of bonus points, long enough to accrue a time penalty of 4m10s.

This meant that Evans had to wait a full 26 minutes in order to get a penalty 10 seconds harsher than Ogier, which eventually allowed the Frenchman to leave Sweden with 5 points – 4 from the Power Stage, 1 for his inherited tenth position.

It wasn’t spectacular, it wasn’t pleasant and it certainly wasn’t universally popular, but there was no denying either the moves legality or Ogier’s commitment to grinding out points finishes, the mark of a true world championship contender.

Andreas Mikkelsen Rally Sweden 2018
Credit: Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

We’ll have to wait and see whether those 5 points play a crucial role in this year’s title race.

Being forced out of the final points paying position and right down to 1fourth overall was merely the icing on the cake of a difficult weekend for Elfyn Evans, one in which he never looked truly at one with either the car or the conditions.

His weekend probably wasn’t helped by playing second fiddle to his younger and less experienced team mate, Teemu Suninen (though that was the case for Ogier as well).

The Finn was behind the wheel of a ‘new era’ WRC car for the first time since Finland last year, not that you’d have known!

A strong run to eighth was his reward, one he accepted in typically gruff fashion, though one suspects he must have been secretly pleased with his ability to step up to the plate and effectively lead M-Sport’s charge on what turned out to be a trying rally for the incumbent champions.

You get the impression that Thierry Neuville had discounted anything other than outright victory before the rally had even begun, probably as he was keen to put the heartache of last year firmly behind him.

His speed and confidence on the ice was mesmerizing, all the more so when you consider the ever-changing nature of the snow and stages, and that he had to overcome a gear selection issue early on in the event.

He benefited from his road order of course, but that shouldn’t take away from what was an imperious performance and a statement of intent; the 2018 title is mine for the taking, and you lot just try stopping me!

In doing so became only the third non-Scandinavian to win in Sweden, one of those subtle yet oh-so-special stats which marks a WRC driver as really something rather special indeed.

Andreas Mikkelsen’s confidence behind the wheel of the i20 WRC belies the fact that Sweden was only his fifth event in Hyundai overalls, though this time he was at least rewarded with a decent points haul thanks to his third-place finish.

He looked to have the pace to challenge his team mate for much of Friday and might well have done, had it not been for a costly spin between the snowbanks of the opening pass through Hagfors on Saturday morning.

It was an off which seemed to dent the Norwegian’s confidence, not least as it opened the door for Craig Breen, the Irishman muscling him out of second to take a position he was to defend to the end.

Sweden provided something of a mixed bag as far as Hayden Paddon was concerned.

Another to benefit from a lower running order, the Kiwi was able to show the same flashes of brilliance that made him a WRC winner 2 years ago.

It was a performance ever so slightly tarnished by losing fourth positions to Esapekka Lappi on the Power Stage, but he was at least able to bring the car home for a decent points haul – significant when you recall he’s sharing the third i20 with Sordo this year.

Citroen can probably be forgiven for feeling a tad bemused by its Rally Sweden.

Katsuta Rally Sweden 2018
Credit: Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

Its lead driver floundered, struggling to make an impression and never looking likely to find his ‘snow legs.’ A trip into the snow banks on SS13 on Saturday appeared fairly innocuous at first, but it didn’t take long for such illusions to be rudely shattered: the C3’s turbo had ingested an inordinate amount of snow and was severely strangled, and it was this ultimately which led to his coming together with Tanak.

Meeke scored took no points from Sweden thanks to his team’s decision to retire the car after the Power Stage, and will no doubt be itching to board the plane to Mexico in a few weeks time.

Meeke might have struggled but Citroen honour was more than upheld by a combination of Mass Østberg and Craig Breen.

Whether the former has done enough to secure further drives in the C3 remains to be seen, but his mature, unflappable drive to sixth (in an unfamiliar car) won’t have done his chances and harm.

Craig Breen was a revelation. Yes, he benefited from an advantageous road order, and yes some of his chief rivals were nowhere to be seen, but his pace was relentless.

He never looked like relinquishing his grip on second from Saturday and appeared totally at home blasting through the treacherously slippy forests.

There were no obvious signs of emotion at the end of the rally like at the conclusion of Rally Finland 2016 but you get the feeling that this result meant even more – it was the rally in which Breen proved he had both the pace and the maturity to fight at the front, and all on a hugely specialised rally.

The only fly in the ointment (well, great big bluebottle) for Breen is that he’ll now be benched for over a month, missing Mexico and Corsica, the latter the Irishman’s favourite WRC round.

Citroen probably has more reason than most to feel thankful for Breen’s second place, and not merely for the valuable points haul it brings.

It was effectively confirmation that the worst of the C3’s handling issues have finally been put to bed.

It looked a far, far more manageable proposition than this time last year, and while the team will doubtless have pinpointed areas for improvement in the coming weeks, the men from Versailles can at least sleep a little easier now that their prize creation isn’t trying to fling its drivers into the scenery at every turn.

It might have been somewhat overshadowed from the fallout from ‘Ogier-gate’ at the end of the Power Stage, but WRC2 delivered a thrilling spectacle for all concerned, primarily as Takamoto Katsuta was able to make history.

The Fiesta driver (albeit competing under the flag of Tommi Mäkinen Racing) became the first Japanese driver to win a WRC2 round, and he did it in some style, using his Pirelli tyres to full effect to beat Pontus Tidemand (reigning champ and a man effectively competing in his home event) and the rest of the R5 runners.

2018 Rally Spain Results

1 – Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC – 2:25:13.1
2 – Craig Breen – Citroen C3 WRC – 2:52:32.9
3 – Andreas Mikkelsen – Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC – 2:52:41.4
4 – Esapekka Lappi – Toyota Yaris WRC – 2:52:58.9
5 – Hayden Paddon – Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC – 2:53:07.5
6 – Mads Østberg – Citroen C3 WRC – 2:53:28.4
7 – Jari-Matti Latvala – Toyota Yaris WRC – 2:54:18.0
8 – Teemu Suninen – Ford Fiesta WRC – 2:55:05.3
9 – Ott Tanak – Toyota Yaris WRC – 2:55:57.5
10 – Sebastien Ogier – Ford Fiesta WRC – 3:00:58.5 (4:10 penalty)
14 – Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC – 3:02:00.5 (4:20 penalty)

2018 Rally Spain Results – WRC2

1 – Takamoto Katsuta – Ford Fiesta R5 – 3:01:27.5
2 – Pontus Tidemand – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:01:32.0
3 – Christian Ole Veiby – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:01:58.0
4 – Mattias Adielsson – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:03:16.8
5 – Janne Tuohino – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:03:57.4
6 – Jari Huttunen – Hyundai i20 R5 – 3:06:29.6
7 – Hiroki Arai – Ford Fiesta R5 – 3:09:07.7
8 – Lars Stugemo – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:21:17.8
9 – Lukasz Pieniazek – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:29:33.7
10 – Jarmo Berg – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:36:39.9