We’ve all done enough reporting on the levels of snow, ice and cold temperatures in and around Sweden over the past weeks. It is time now to talk stage times, tyre grip and high speed jumps.
The 2020 FIA World Rally Championship’s second leg takes in Rally Sweden this weekend. It is a special event on the calendar for many reasons, but mainly because it presents unique challenges to the drivers, co-drivers, teams and cars as well offering spectators a rally unlike any other in the sport. To see rally cars flying through the air over a high-speed jump, land on an ice-packed road to then dart into a sharp corner with millimetric precision and under total control is mind blowing. This weekend’s shortened Rally Sweden offers even more of a challenge for competitors due to unseasonably warm weather and lack of snow, only serving to heighten and further dramatize the WRC action. Let’s go rallying!
With today’s first special stage cancelled late last night – the famous SS Karlstad – due to a lack of snow on the tracks, the real rallying action gets underway tomorrow with four stages in Sweden and Norway over 63.68 kilometers. There are six more stages thereafter split over two days with Saturday running a repeat of Friday’s stages and Sunday featuring two tests over the Likenas stage with the last run held as the Power Stage to conclude the event. Competitors face 171.64km of timed action this weekend, but not one crew will be asking for the event to be cancelled or further shortened. In fact, they’re relishing the prospect of a particularly high-speed rally.
After a short pre-event test earlier this week, current WRC championship leader Thierry Neuville commented on his expectations of the event: “The stages will be like flat-out and not so interesting, actually.” These WRC drivers are a breed apart from the rest of us mere mortals!
Will it be another victory in 2020 for Neuville, co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul and their Hyundai Shell Mobis i20 Coupe WRC? Or, will Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia and Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin exact revenge on their rival for the last stage upset at last month’s Rallye Monte-Carlo? The battle amongst the Toyota and Hyundai crews this weekend will begin in today’s two Shakedown stages and won’t let up for one second until the final stage is completed. The level of competition is at an all-time high in the WRC, thinks this reporter.
To complicate matters on picking your winner, with limited running on these tricky stages beforehand, it would be logical to cover your bet with a Scandinavian driver: these crews have boundless experience of competing on these roads, in these conditions and most likely learned to drive their fathers’ cars on roads just like these. Jari-Matti Latvala/Juho Hanninen are competing in a factory-prepped but privately-entered Toyota Yaris WRC and make for a dynamic duo that will likely surprise rivals this weekend; M-Sport Ford’s fast Finns Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm and Teemu Suninen/Jarmo Lehtinen have much to prove in their Fiesta RS WRCs this weekend after slow starts and troubled runs in Rallye Monte-Carlo; young hotshot Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota Gazoo Racing) have been testing on snow and ice roads in a WRC machine earlier this year – this driver should not to be disregarded due to his 19 years of age.
What of Craig Breen/Paul Nagle who were called up to the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team for this event to replace nine-times WRC champions Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena? They impressed the WRC circus with their stellar 2018 performance in a lacklustre Citroën C3 WRC to claim second overall. The darkhorse for a podium position?
Simply put, the WRC field offers much excitement and action on the ten stages this weekend and we’ll relish each of these 171 kilometers.
Rally Sweden also marks the first round of the 2020 Junior World Rally Championship (JWRC) with 16 young stars taking to the start in identical M-Sport Ford Fiesta R2T machines. Names to watch out for tomorrow include Tom Kristensson, Martins Sesks, Jon Armstrong, Raul Badiu and Enrico Oldrati. These two-wheel-drive rally cars will create a stir on the stages and it will be interesting to see which driver will top the timesheets on this challenging rally. Driver skill, perseverance and a cool head will mark out the winner.
Six crews will vie for victory in WRC2, with Norwegians Mads Ostberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën C3 WRC) the favourites for the win again this weekend again. Ole Christian Veiby/Jonas Andersson (Hyundai i20 R5) and Pontus Tidemand/Patrik Barth (Skoda Fabia R5 Evo) won’t want Ostberg to have it all his way this weekend as he did in Rallye Monte-Carlo, but Ostberg relishes events on these types of roads. Once more, an interesting Citroën versus Hyundai versus Skoda versus Ford battle will be in the offing.
The WRC3 class of similar R5-powered crews will also look to outpace each other and the WRC2 class competitors. Oliver Solberg/Aaron Johnston (Skoda Fabia R5 Evo), Roland Poom (Ford Fiesta R5), multiple World Rallycross champion Johan Kristoffersson (Volkswagen Polo GTI R5) and Jari Huttunen (Hyundai i20 R5) will undoubtedly be the pacesetters this weekend. Huttunen will want to open his 2020 WRC3 championship account with the maximum number of points on Sunday. But, Solberg junior is a force to be reckoned with on these roads we think.
The studded Winter tyres, the pinned accelerator pedals, and the iced roads will make this dance on the ice one to remember this weekend.