Snow, titanium tyre studs and one hundred and twenty two feet jumps: it can only be the Swedish Rally, round two of this year’s World Rally Championship. And it’s on telly (well, BT Sport).
Defending Champion Sébastien Ogier won the first round, the Monte Carlo, last month, but it was not an altogether convincing victory. Ogier himself admitted he thought it was all over on the very first stage when he steered his VW Polo GT WRC into a wall.
And then, on day two, privateer and hero of the hour Bryan Bouffier and co-driver Xavier Panseri dropped their pace notes, lost a good chunk of time and the lead of the rally. A lead they’d taken from Robert Kubica on day one. Yeah, that Robert Kubica.
Kubica is back (Bouffier is back home in France looking for money) in his semi-works M-Sport Fiesta on a rally that’s proved fruitful for Ford over the last ten decade — Focuses and Fiestas have won no fewer than six times.
Ford’s ranks are boosted on Rally Sweden by Henning Solberg (big brother of former champ Petter), who’s making a one-off comeback this week on what is — for at least some of early stages across the border in Norway — his ‘home’ rally.
Solberg Snr is clearly out to impress, clocking the fourth fastest time on this morning’s shakedown. The points-scoring works Fords are again driven by Mikko Hirvonen, who’ll be looking for a better run in his old team than on the Monte, and Welshman Elfyn Evans, who was something of a star on his debut in the works car last month.
Hirvonen, of course, swapped places with Mads Østrberg, who returns to Citroen this year. The team looked comfortable on the shakedown, Østberg recording the fastest time with teammate Kris Meeke’s DSR3 third behind Jari-Matti Latvala in the second Polo.
But it wasn’t all about pace this morning: temperatures are unseasonably high around Karlstad right now, and the gravel is starting to show through the melt. When you have 380 one-inch studs in your tyres, gravel is the last thing you want to see. Ogier managed no better than 12th after an extremely cautious run.
Thierry Neuville, who starred in last year’s WRC and was rewarded with the number one seat in Hyundai’s new WRC team, was fifth this morning. The i20 WRC was quick on its debut, though its debut lasted less than six miles before Neuville had it on its roof in similarly tricky conditions on the Monte. Neuville has a new teammate for Rally Sweden, 33-year-old Juho Hänninen, the team’s test driver.
Dani Sordo, who was running comfortably in the top three on the Monte when the Hyundai’s battery failed, is stood down for Sweden, the team opting for a Finn. Scandinavians won every Swedish Rally until 2004, when a certain Sébastien Loeb broke the stranglehold. Only one other non-Scandi has ever won: Sébsatien Ogier last year.
The rally starts on Wednesday night at the Karlstad trotting arena with the super special stage, where the cars go head-to-head, two at a time. It’s drag racing on snow with studded tyres. The first cars are off at 1900 UK time.
Thursday sees the first of three loops of eight stages, including the classic Vargåsen stage on the Saturday, with the chance for drivers to claim the rally’s unofficial Colin McRae prize for the longest jump over ‘Colin’s Crest’. A record that currently stands at 37 meters. Who was the driver? Ken Block…