Time for the snow and ice roads of Northern Sweden then as the championship moves to round two. Thierry and Martijn lead the drivers and co-drivers’ championship for Hyundai and will therefore be opening the road throughout Friday’s stages. Second on the road will be the 2020 winners of this event, Elfyn and Scott. They finished third in the season opener, but with Seb and Vincent not taking part they will be next on the road behind the Belgians.
Kalle and Jonne will be competing instead and took part along with their teammates, Elfyn and Scott in last weekends Artic Rally, mainly in preparation for this event. The two Toyota drivers headed the field in their Rally1 GR Yaris’ with Elfyn and Scott winning following a technical for their Finnish teammates.
Also competing this weekend in their first outing of the year is Esapekka and Janne for Hyundai and will be hoping a better result than the seventh place they scored last year. A spin followed by another incident with a snowbank tempered the speed, but he did take the power stage win.
Of course, Craig should be remembered this weekend. The Irishman made his first start back at Hyundai with James Fulton in 2023 and fought over the lead with eventual winners Ott and Martin before taking a well deserved second place, beating Thierry into third place. It was a brilliant drive.
Looking to the stages facing the crews this weekend there are 300 km’s over 18 stages. The longest day is Saturday with 125.96 km’s to challenge the crews.
Let’s hear from the drivers.
“We are expecting a lot of snow and very cold temperatures in Sweden. This was something that was manageable last year but has been a bit more difficult previously. Because of this, we will need a lot of precision and reactivity from the car to be able to throw it from one corner to the other and maximise effectiveness. Snowbanks are obviously a huge risk, especially when temperatures are higher than usual. When it’s freezing, they are a feature you can rely on to help you get a better position to go faster. Clean driving, tyre management and road positions are all factors that can make it very challenging, but from our experience last year, the first day was very equal. I have always enjoyed Rally Sweden, so we will target a strong result.”
“Sweden is a really nice rally that’s mostly about pure performance. The roads are easy and flat, so it’s no real stress to the cars and this makes it easier to maximise the pace. Previously it’s been great in Umeå, and I would like to see big snowbanks and icy roads once again. Snowbanks are more of a support than a risk in Sweden. Most of the time you can use them to your advantage to push the limit, so if the snowbank takes you, you are probably too far over the limit. The stages in complete darkness are always a bit of a challenge. You don’t see very much, sometimes just where the lights show. That, paired with driving on snow, means you can go sideways unexpectedly. On the other side, snow is quite a good reflector, so I would say it’s easier than driving in places like muddy Wales. The target is to do well. We won it last year and will try our best to be battling at the front again.”
“Rally Sweden is an event I definitely enjoy and a great place for me to start my season. I think if the conditions are as expected, then starting towards the back is a big advantage, as the fresh snow will be ploughed away by the first cars and the grip will be higher. However, if it’s really cold, more around minus 20, then you might have a lot of snow powder flying in the air, which makes visibility worse for those later in the running order. Another key feature of Rally Sweden is the difference between the first and second passes of the stages. On the first, the road is usually smooth, and you can approach it normally, but on the second there can be big ruts that demand you to adapt your driving style quite a lot. Our goal might change during the weekend, it depends where we are, but hopefully we are fighting for the podium.”
Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT
“It’s exciting to be starting our season with an event like Rally Sweden. I always enjoy driving on snow and it’s one of the best feelings you can have in a rally car. It’s been cool, to get back in the car over the last week at the Arctic Rally and in our pre-event test. Sweden has been a good event for us in the past but last year we were not so strong, so this year we want to fight back. As it’s the only round on snow, it’s not easy to find the perfect car setup with only a few days of testing in those conditions. But I think we’ve found some useful things in our tests, and we’ve been going in the right direction, so I’m looking forward to the rally.”
“Driving on snow and ice is something unique and makes Rally Sweden a very specific event. In the past I’ve had some good performance there, and we’ve been working to try and improve my feeling with the car from last year’s event. Our pre-event running in Finland has been really useful to get some time on snow before Sweden: it’s given us the chance to try a few things and I think we have managed to make some good steps. The conditions can vary quite a lot during the rally, with gravel coming through on the second pass of stages, and that’s something key to get right. Starting second on the road with fast drivers behind will not be easy but we’ll do our best like always and try to get the most out of the weekend.”
“Rally Sweden is always an exciting rally and it’s one of my favourite events on the calendar. Driving on snow and ice is something I have really enjoyed since I started rallying in Europe with the TGR WRC Challenge Program. Last year, I had pretty good speed in Sweden so I hope we can perform well again and get a good result also. This event is always a big challenge and there will be some fast drivers including Kalle starting behind us on the road, so it will not be easy to fight for the top positions. But I will try to push hard and do the maximum that I can.”
M-Sport Ford WRT
“The challenge in Sweden will be quite interesting for me, it’s been two years since I’ve driven on snow! We only do one rally per year on snow, which has a very different driving style and car set up. But I really like to drive the car on snow, it’s a really nice feeling that we get at these speeds and it’s quite unique. So, I’m really looking forward to it! The target will be to get our feeling back on snow, look at our pace compared to the more experienced crews, and see if we can get a good result like we did in Monte.
“We’ve done one day’s testing this week and the feeling was quite good. So, we’ll see, it’s always difficult to know on the test how the rally is going to go as the conditions can be so different.”
“The big challenge for Sweden will be getting to know the car on this particular surface. We had the chance to drive once on snow last year with the Fiesta Rally3, but this time we will be carrying much more speed into the corners. So, there’s an additional challenge where we have to adapt the pace notes to the different speed with the Puma. We will also try not to get stuck in the snowbanks, which can happen so quickly! “We had a good pre-event test, where we tried many different things. But we want to try to keep it simple, to just get the feeling with the car, drive the kilometres and get better on this surface. We just hope to finish the rally and make progression throughout the event.”
Rally 2 class
There are a number of other crews competing this weekend in the second class of the championship. Let’s hear from a couple of these drivers.
“I’ve competed in Lima a couple of times, and I’ve always found it really beneficial to prepare before heading to Rally Sweden. I think it’s even more important this year as I step into the challenges the WRC2 category will bring with this new car, so I’m really happy to have this opportunity thanks to the MI Rally Academy. I’ve always enjoyed driving on the snow, and we had good pace in Sweden last year. The aim is to get comfortable with the car and Lima presents a great opportunity to do that.
“I’m really happy to have a full WRC2 programme planned with the support of the MI Rally Academy and to have the opportunity to work with everyone at M-Sport. Liam and I have spent a week with the team at Dovenby Hall, which has allowed us to work with the mechanics and engineers so that we are well prepared for Lima & Rally Sweden.
“Participating in Junior WRC gave me great experience to build my pace in Sweden, which makes this transition to the WRC2 category much more manageable. The competition is so strong in WRC2, so I have to focus on my own event and making the step up before I look at the others!”
“The conditions are looking very, very good. OK, things can change a little bit, but it really looks like we could be in for some of the best winter rallying in a while. And, trust me, that makes me smile!
“There’s nothing quite like driving a rally car like the Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 in these perfect winter conditions. The studs are biting into the ice to give you incredible grip, and you have the snowbanks on the outside to lean on and carry more speed – sometimes even going a gear higher through some corners.
“You come through these stages flat out and you can’t help but bring this big smile to your face. I love this event.
“Basically, we want more of what we did last year. We found a rhythm quite early in the event and we were able to drive to it. The important thing is to make a nice, clean race and not take too many risks with the snowbanks – it’s so easy to get tipped into one and then you spend so long trying to dig the car out.
“It’s important to get good points on the board for WRC2. We showed we have good pace in Monte Carlo last month and that’s a nice way to come into this event. To be honest, I just want to get out there and have some fun in the snow on one of my favourite rallies of the year.”
We are set for a good fight for this rally. Ott and Martin will hope that even though they have switched back to Hyundai, that they can do what they last year and take victory. It’s fair to say that they will have a battle on their hands with the world champions competing.
Meanwhile, Elfyn and Scott will certainly be fighting near the front, despite their starting position, whilst for Thierry and Martijn it will be a real struggle out there on Friday and it will be interesting how they will deal with that.
The Rally 2 class will see a big battle and perhaps as big as the one we saw on the roads near Monte-Carlo.