As the only truly winter rally on the current calendar, the snow-covered Swedish forests present perhaps the most unique challenge of any WRC event, so, with no clear championship favourite after the opening round of the season…who would be able to tame the white stuff this time around as the sport’s new era begins to take shape?
Now, I don’t know about you…but I think we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Of course, in motorsport, no two championship seasons are ever exactly the same – particularly after such a dramatic overhaul of the rules during the off-season – and so it’s inevitable things aren’t going to stay this way, but, with everyone starting from a clean sheet of paper, there was hope that the start of the sport’s new era would level the playing field and give a chance to some of the less familiar names to immediately make their mark…and yet, for one reason or another, we still ended up with near enough the same result.
In fact, if you were being really honest, you could say that this was the dominant force of recent times picking up virtually where they left off last year (and, if you’d only looked at the final result, that’s probably how it appeared), but it’s all too easy sometimes to take success for granted based on what’s gone before, and so, while it might not have looked like a contest on the surface, if you read between the lines…there was considerably more to it than that. The 2017 FIA World Rally Championship may have started as many had expected, but the field looks to be even more competitive than it has for a while…and so there’ll be plenty of twists and turns still to come.
LAST TIME OUT
Following the surprise withdrawal of the all-conquering Volkswagen Motorsport team towards the end of last season, there was a noticeably different look to the WRC as the crews – armed with their vicious-looking new machinery – arrived in the mountains of Monte Carlo for the traditional curtain-raiser last time, but much of the pre-event attention remained focused on the sport’s biggest name, with four-time reigning champions Sebastien Ogier and co-driver Julien Ingrassia unusually starting on the back foot after losing their seats with VW and being forced into a late switch to the M-Sport operation and their new Ford Fiesta, and so the question on many people’s lips ahead of the start was whether the French pair could maintain their advantage in pursuit of a fifth straight drivers’ crown.
Unfortunately, though, it wasn’t long at all before the action was temporarily put aside as an altogether more serious issue took centre stage – indeed, only two cars made it through the very first stage of the season before an incident involving Hyundai’s Hayden Paddon (the Kiwi rolling his car after sliding off on a patch of ice, blocking the road for those behind) saw a spectator sustain injuries that he later died from in hospital. This led to some making unwelcome comparisons between the more powerful, faster 2017 cars and the fearsome Group B era of the mid-1980s, which was ultimately scrapped after a series of fatal accidents, but, personally, I don’t think it’s fair to judge these new regulations to the same standard – certainly not after just one event – and, while there’s probably something to be said about just how close the spectator got to the side of the road when Paddon went off, it’s certainly not going to change the outcome of somebody having lost their life.
Once the racing resumed in earnest, however, it became clear that the champions would have a fight on their hands to secure a fourth straight Monte victory, with Belgian hotshot Thierry Neuville – runner-up to Ogier in 2016 – grabbing the advantage on his way to a commanding early lead on the opening day in his Hyundai i20 Coupe, while the Frenchman had to fight his way back after an uncharacteristic mistake on the first stage of Friday morning cost him more than 40 seconds. However, even having recovered to second overall and with the added benefit of a change to the running-order rules that meant he was no longer first on the road on Saturday, the Ford driver still couldn’t make any meaningful inroads as the leader continued to edge clear, but Neuville’s blemish-free weekend was ruined on the final stage of the day when he clouted a bank and broke the i20’s suspension to put himself out of contention of his own accord, and, although he salvaged the maximum bonus points on the final ‘Power Stage’, it was nowhere near as good as it could and, to be honest, should have been for the Belgian.
This left Ogier with a comfortable margin that he was easily able to manage to the finish to get his title defence off to the best possible start on his debut for M-Sport, with ex-VW stable-mate Jari-Matti Latvala marking Toyota’s long-awaited return to the WRC after an 18 year absence with a stunning second in his Yaris – albeit some 2 minutes adrift of the champion – and Estonian Ott Tanak somehow hanging on to complete the podium in third despite serious engine issues on the final morning in the second M-Sport Fiesta. Behind, Spaniard Dani Sordo was a solid fourth in the third Hyundai despite struggling to find a rhythm all weekend, with Irishman Craig Breen producing a superb performance in a 2016-spec Citroen DS3 to round out the top five, but, it was a difficult event for the French team and their new C3 on their full-time return to the stages, with both Kris Meeke – widely touted as one of the main contenders for overall title success in 2017 – and team-mate Stephane Lefebvre both suffering early mechanical gremlins that saw them only collect a handful of points.
After getting the challenge of Monte Carlo out of the way for another year, the championship headed even further north to Scandinavia and the frozen forests of Sweden for the second round of the season, with the only truly winter rally on the calendar presenting an equally stern test for both the crews and their new machines. Having first been held back in 1950, the event has been a virtual ever-present since the inaugural season of the WRC in 1973 – only being dropped from the calendar in 2009 as part of the short-lived ‘rotation’ system – and brings with it some unique elements, thus forcing the drivers to adapt their approach in order to achieve a good result. Despite being run on effectively gravel roads, the cars are fitted with studded winter tyres (around 380 steel studs in each one) to combat the low-grip nature of the frozen surface, and, while the sizeable snow banks can be used to help guide the cars around the corners, warmer temperatures can result in them breaking up on impact, causing some cars to get stuck.
In terms of the specific route, more than half of the 331 competitive kilometres (just slightly more than 200 miles) are new compared to the 2016 edition, while there’s also a new home for the teams over the weekend as the service park switches from its previous base in Karlstad to the more northerly setting of Torsby in an attempt to guarantee suitably cold conditions. Many of Friday’s stages – including the two runs through the 21.26km of the Hof-Finnskog test, a stage that has never been run before – actually cross the border into neighbouring Norway, while Saturday’s action features perhaps the most famous stage of the weekend in the form of the 14.27km Vargasen test – which includes the so-called ‘Colin’s Crest’ (named after the late former world champion Colin McRae) – as well as the longest of the rally in the form of the new Knon test, which measures in at more than 31km. By contrast, Sunday’s itinerary on Sunday constitutes little more than a sprint, with the crews having to negotiate the two passes through the 21km of Likenas before followed by the rally-ending Power Stage that finishes in the service park in Torsby.
The corresponding event here 12 months ago produced more than its fair share of talking points even before the crews arrived, with a lack of snow on the road leading to several stages being cancelled prior to the start, but it failed to have much of an effect on the final outcome as, after another early challenge from Meeke was curtailed when the Citroen driver ran over a rock and broke his car’s suspension in eerily similar fashion to his Monte retirement, Ogier and VW easily led from start to finish for their second victory of the season. Behind, despite a major scare on the Power Stage when contact with a marker pole broke his i20’s radiator, Paddon – who had closed to within 9s of the Frenchman midway through Saturday before dropping away – made it back to service to equal his best-ever WRC finish in second, with Norwegian Mads Ostberg completing the podium in third in his M-Sport Fiesta.
So, having made light work of the off-season uncertainty surrounding his future to kick off his championship defence off to the perfect start, would Ogier and M-Sport make it two out of two in Scandinavia to send an early statement to the rest of the field; after a minor mistake cost him a certain victory on the Monte, could Neuville repeat his pace to take the fight to the champion once again, or, with the new pecking order yet to fully take shape, would another early contender emerge from the chasing pack? Well, it’s time to find out – this is the story of the second event of the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship, the 2017 Rally Sweden…
DAYS 1 AND 2 (SS1-SS8):
The rally began in the dark of Thursday evening as the cars tackled the opening super special stage in Karlstad, and, after their superb return to the sport’s top level in Monte Carlo, it was another encouraging start for Toyota as Latvala grabbed the early lead by 0.6s in his Yaris ahead of the leading Hyundai of Neuville, with team-mate Sordo just a tenth further back in third and Tanak the best of the M-Sport Fiestas in fourth after the opening test. Championship leader Ogier made a cautious start to sit fifth – albeit only 0.9s shy of the pace set by his former VW team-mate – ahead of the returning Ostberg in a privately-funded M-Sport Fiesta (the Norwegian running a joint operation with the Jipocar team of fellow privateer Martin Prokop after losing his seat with the main team at the end of 2016), with Meeke the best of the Citroens in seventh and veteran Finn Juho Hanninen eighth in the second Toyota.
However, when it came to the start of the first full day of action on Friday, it wasn’t long before the pattern of the Monte was resumed, with Neuville posting the fastest time on the opening stage – the first pass through the 18.47km of Rojden – to move to the head of the leaderboard before extending his advantage marginally with another stage win on SS3, but Latvala was quick to fight back as he took the final stage of the morning loop to head to service with a slender margin of just 3.9s in hand over the Hyundai. Behind the leading duo, despite a brief encounter with a snow bank, Meeke managed to work his way up into third for Citroen ahead of the two M-Sport Fords of Ogier – the Frenchman again struggling as the first car on the road by virtue of his championship position – and Tanak (the Estonian having suffered with gearbox gremlins on his car), but it wasn’t such good news for their team-mate as Welshman Elfyn Evans suffered an early puncture on his DMACK Fiesta to drop out of the top 10.
The afternoon loop started badly for Toyota as Hanninen – who had been running reasonably competitively – crashed on the second run through Rojden in similar fashion to the mistake he made in Monte Carlo, and, although the Finn made it to the end of the stage, the damage to the Yaris proved enough to put him out for the remainder of the day. There was also a frightening moment for Ostberg when his Fiesta shed its rear wing at top speed over a crest on SS5, but, back at the front, nobody could live with the searing pace of Neuville and his new i20 Coupe, with the Belgian again putting the hammer down to take a clean sweep of stage wins in the afternoon – including a phenomenal time on the second pass through the 24.88km of Svullrya that was more than 11s quicker than anyone else – and open up a more comfortable advantage of nearly half a minute over Latvala by the end of proceedings on Friday.
Behind, a fastest stage time for Tanak on the final stage of the day allowed the Estonian to move into third, albeit with both Meeke’s Citroen and M-Sport team-mate Ogier breathing down his neck as just 6s covered the trio by the end of the day. After being withdrawn from the opening round following his accident, Paddon was understandably cautious as he continued to get to grips with the new i20, but the Kiwi was still rapid enough to finish Friday inside the top six ahead of team-mate Sordo and the second Citroen of Breen – the Irishman again producing a mature display on his first appearance of 2017 in the new C3 – with Evans recovering to ninth in his Fiesta and young Frenchman Stephane Lefebvre completing the top 10 in his 2016-spec Citroen DS3.
Thierry Neuville (BEL) – #5 Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
LEADERBOARD AFTER DAY 2:
1. Neuville (Hyundai)
2. Latvala (Toyota) +28.1s
3. Tanak (Ford) +49.7s
4. Meeke (Citroen) +51.8s
5. Ogier (Ford) +55.7s
6. Paddon (Hyundai) +1:17.8s
7. Sordo (Hyundai) +1:40.3s
8. Breen (Citroen) +1:54.3s
9. Evans (Ford) +3:01.5s
10. Lefebvre (Citroen) +3:23.6s
DAYS 3 AND 4 (SS9-SS18):
Despite a fresh snowfall ahead of the start of Saturday’s action, it did little to blunt the pace of the new, significantly faster 2017 machines, with Tanak continuing where he had left off on the previous day by taking the opening stage win on SS9 (the first pass through Knon) with a time that saw the Estonian record an average speed of nearly 140km/h (more than 85mph), which was the highest figure seen in the WRC since the early days of Group B back in 1983. It got even better for the M-Sport driver as he went on to complete a clean sweep of fastest times during the morning loop to close to within 10s of second place, but, up ahead, Neuville was continuing to edge further clear of the field, and, by the time the crews returned to service, the Belgian had more than half a minute in hand as Latvala struggled with the additional weight of carrying a second spare studded tyre.
With the decision being made by event organisers to cancel the second running of Knon on safety grounds, the afternoon loop began with the iconic Hagfors test of SS13, and, initially, Latvala looked like he was about to launch a fightback as he took the stage win to gain himself a little more breathing space against the increasing threat of Tanak, with team-mate Ogier also hanging on in an unusually subdued fourth, but none of them could do anything to match Neuville’s pace as the Hyundai man produced another superb turn of speed on the second Vargasen stage to extend his lead to beyond 40s. However, an unpleasant sense of deja vu was about to strike for the leader, as, after Meeke slid out of a secure fifth place on SS14, the Belgian again sensationally threw away his hard-earned cushion after contact with a tyre bale broke the i20’s steering on the short blast through the Karlstad super special, meaning Latvala inherited the lead by just 3.8s ahead of Tanak and Ogier going into the final day.
With just 60km remaining on Sunday morning, the pressure was on for the three crews embroiled in the fight for victory, and, unusually, it was reigning champion Ogier who blinked first as he hit a snow bank and span at the first corner of the opening run through Likenas, effectively ending the Frenchman’s lingering hopes of a fourth Swedish success. Latvala, by contrast, made the perfect start with a blistering time on SS16 before backing it up with an even quicker effort on the second pass to extend his lead to a comfortable 20s, and, after a mistake from Tanak in the Power Stage saw him stall the engine of the Fiesta and lose yet more crucial ground, the Finn was able to cruise through the final test to record a maiden victory for the new Toyota Gazoo Racing team – masterminded by ex-world champion Tommi Makinen – and the new Yaris, picking up the maximum five bonus points for the fastest time on the Power Stage in the process.
Behind, Tanak – who ended up a distant 29s adrift of the victor – and team-mate Ogier ensured another double podium for the M-Sport Fiestas in second and third respectively, with Sordo again first of the Hyundais in fourth ahead of the impressive Breen, who succeeded where team-mate Meeke had failed and stayed out of trouble to complete the top five for Citroen. Further back, despite having started the day more than a minute ahead, Evans only just managed to hold Paddon at bay for sixth – the final margin between the pair just 4.6s – as the Kiwi produced a sensible drive to get his championship challenge underway with a solid seventh in the third of the i20s, finishing almost 2 minutes clear of eight-placed Lefebvre in his older-spec DS3, while WRC2 victor Pontus Tidemand netted some overall points on home soil with ninth in his Skoda Fabia R5 ahead of Finnish youngster and class rival Teemu Suninen in an M-Sport run Fiesta R5 in tenth.
Power Stage – Top 5:
1. Latvala (Toyota) 8:51.1s (+5pts)
2. Ogier (Ford) +1.2s (+4pts)
3. Neuville (Hyundai) +1.5s (+3pts)
4. Meeke (Citroen) +3.0s (+2pts)
5. Paddon (Hyundai) +7.7s (+1pt)
Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN) – #10 Toyota Yaris WRC
1. Latvala (Toyota)
2. Tanak (Ford) +29.2s
3. Ogier (Ford) +59.5s
4. Sordo (Hyundai) +2:11.5s
5. Breen (Citroen) +2:51.2s
6. Evans (Ford) +5:26.6s
7. Paddon (Hyundai) +5:31.2s
8. Lefebvre (Citroen) +7:14.7s
9. Tidemand (Skoda – 1st in WRC2) +9:11.1s
10. Suninen (Ford – 2nd in WRC2) +10:02.9s
WRC2 – TOP 5:
1.  Pontus Tidemand (Skoda)
2.  Teemu Suninen (Ford) +51.8s
3.  Ole Christian Veiby (Skoda) +1:07.4s
4.  Eric Camilli (Ford) +3:12.4s
5.  Gus Greensmith (Ford) +5:10.8s
No classified finishers
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Latvala (Toyota) – 48pts (25+5 PS)
2. Ogier (Ford) – 44pts (15+4 PS)
3. Tanak (Ford) – 33pts (18)
4. Sordo (Hyundai) – 25pts (12)
5. Breen (Citroen) – 20pts (10)
6. Evans (Ford) – 18pts (8)
7. Lefebvre (Citroen) – 10pts (4)
8. Neuville (Hyundai) – 8pts (0+3 PS)
9. Paddon (Hyundai) – 7pts (6+1 PS)
10. Mikkelsen (Skoda) – 6pts (-)
Manufacturers – Top 4:
1. M-Sport World Rally Team – 73pts
2. Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT – 53pts
3. Hyundai Motorsport – 40pts
4. Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT – 26pts