WORLD Champion Sébastien Ogier is expecting Rally Sweden, starting overnight, to be one of the fastest yet after a cold Scandinavian winter created ideal conditions.
PHOTO: Rally Sweden 2017 winner Jari-Matti Latvala will lead a strong Toyota attack on this year’s event (Jaanus Ree/Red Bull pic)
A three-time winner in Sweden, Ogier is coming into the second round of the season on a high after winning Rallye Monte-Carlo and is expecting the prominent snow banks – created thanks to recent heavy snowfall – will help his Ford Fiesta reach “incredible speeds”.
“It looks as though we are in for a true winter rally with everything needed for a classic Rally Sweden,” the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team driver said.
“Reports suggest there’s a good ice base and high snow banks, which is everything a driver wants to hear ahead of this event.
“In those conditions, we can reach incredible speeds and lean the cars on the snow banks to help guide us through the corners. It’s an amazing feeling, but it’s not without its challenges.”
The Frenchman, the most successful non-Scandinavian driver to take on Rally Sweden, admitted he will have to be careful not to rely on the snow banks too much, as the stages can still catch competitors out.
“There’s certainly an art to driving on snow and you need to be precise,” Ogier said.
“You have to judge the strength of the snow banks perfectly and, with more snow than previous years, there could be a lot of work to do on the pacenotes.
“As the first car on the road, we’ll also have to wait and see what the conditions are like and we’re certainly not hoping to see any fresh snow on Friday.”
The WRC’s only true winter rally starts on Thursday night (local time) with a short, crowd-pleasing special stage in the central-western city of Karlstad. It is scheduled to finish on Sunday afternoon after 315 kilometres of some of the fastest and most spectacular stages in the 13-round WRC, which wraps up at Kennards Hire Rally Australia in November.
With history favouring Scandinavian drivers, all eyes will be on the official Toyota Gazoo team, which stunned WRC followers by winning the rally last year on just its second appearance. Confidence in the Finnish-based team is high, with 2017 winner Jari-Matti Latvala joined in a three-car Toyota Yaris line-up by Ott Tänak and Esapekka Lappi.
Latvala is ready to start an event that promises to rival the Winter Olympics for speed, daring and drama in freezing conditions.
“Sweden is one of my favourite rallies and actually the place where I took my first WRC victory 10 years ago,” he said.
“Compared to last year I think we have a better car. We concentrated on improving it on the slower and more technical sections during our test and we definitely made a step forward in this area.”
Although blanketed in snow, the Rally Sweden course, which includes six stages in neighbouring Norway on Friday, is one of the WRC’s fastest. Ott Tänak controversially averaged 138 kilometres an hour on a stage last year, causing WRC authorities to cancel a second pass.
After troubled runs on Rallye Monte-Carlo, the official Hyundai and Citroën teams re desperate to get their campaigns back on track in Sweden.
Hyundai will be represented in i20 WRC Coupes by regulars Thierry Neuville and Andreas Mikkelsen (Norwegian-born also a snow specialist) plus returning New Zealander Hayden Paddon, who came second in 2016.
“I can’t wait to get my 2018 season underway finally. I have good memories from finishing on the podium two years ago and I will be trying to repeat some of that performance,” Paddon said.
“It was great to get re-acquainted with the car in testing recently. We were able to enjoy some outstanding winter driving conditions. More of that in the rally, as well as a decent result, would be the perfect start to my season.”
Citroën’s Kris Meeke says heavier snow this year will suit the drivers.
“In the last few seasons, with a limited amount of snow, you had to be very cautious or risk getting stuck in a snow bank after the slightest impact,” the Ulsterman said.
“The snow banks seem to be bigger and more compact this time around, so we’ll undoubtedly be able to drive more aggressively and use the banks more, although we may need a bit of time to get used to that.”