Five Ford Fiesta RS WRCs will represent M-Sport and the State of Qatar next week as the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) embarks on the snow-covered stages of Rally Sweden.
Notoriously a strong event for M-Sport and the firm’s range of Ford Fiesta rally cars, Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov, Nasser Al-Attiyah, Thierry Neuville and Juho Hänninen will be utilizing the team’s extensive knowledge of this specialist event as they chase Scandinavian success.
To best cope with these conditions, each Fiesta is clad with Michelin’s skinny winter tyres – each fitted with over 380 tungsten-tipped studs which cut through the soft snow to capture grip on the hard ice beneath.
But it’s not just the cars that need to make provisions for the harsh conditions. To best combat the bitter cold and bright snow, crews are equipped with boot warmers and anti-glare glasses.
Drivers can also ‘lean’ their cars against the solid snow banks that line the stages to help guide their Fiestas around icy corners at high speed. But ‘lean’ too hard and they risk losing precious minutes having to dig themselves free from the compacted snow.
However, with the region witnessing a much milder winter of late, the team could well encounter a slightly different landscape to the winter wonderland which has become synonymous with Rally Sweden.
Melting snow and exposed gravel could make tyre preservation of vital importance and, as conditions dictate, the team can expect some lengthy discussions to decipher the optimum running order for the first full day of competition.
Having made a solid start to the season on his Monte-Carlo debut last month, Østberg will be out to make an impact next week. The 25-year-old is strong on what is effectively his home event and has made the podium on his two previous outings.
With a substantial pre-event test already under his belt, Østberg will contest Rally Finnskog in his native Norway this weekend. Fully prepared, the local-lad will be looking to do battle for victory.
Partnering Østberg in the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team, Novikov will also be looking to build upon the speed he demonstrated last month.
Coping perfectly with the tricky conditions on offer in the South of France, the Russian had been lying in a strong podium position before falling foul to the treacherous stages on the final day.
Having impressed to fifth place on his Swedish debut last year, the Muscovite will be looking to replicate his recent successes next week.
Making his 2013 debut in the WRC, Al-Attiyah will also be back in action next week as he leads the Qatar World Rally Team’s campaign on the wintry stages.
Fresh from a perfectly controlled and record-breaking tenth victory at the Qatar International Rally, the Qatari will be looking for a strong result as he swaps the sand dunes for the snow banks.
Also in action will be Neuville and Hänninen. While Neuville made his debut on the snow-covered stages last year, Hänninen last tackled Rally Sweden as part of the Production World Rally Championship in 2008 – winning the class and claiming a creditable eighth place overall.
Mads Østberg said: “I am definitely feeling confident ahead of this rally. We had a really good test on Friday and we’ll also be doing a rally in Norway this weekend where we can build on everything we learnt during the test – improve set-up and basically just see how far we can push the limits.
“The conditions will be a lot similar to what we experienced on the test. There’s due to be a little more snow over the weekend, but if that snow disappears and the gravel gets exposed it is going to be really tricky. It will mean that we’ll have to really look after the tyres because they could easily lose their studs.
“But all in all I think we are really well prepared for this event and well placed for a strong result. We want to win. That’s our goal and that’s what we’ll be pushing for.”
Evgeny Novikov said: “I have a really good feeling ahead of this event. We will have a day of testing later in the week [Sunday 3 February] and I hear the conditions are really special. The other crews have told me that it’s really cold and that the ground is good so I’m looking forward to the fight!
“We’ll have to wait and see what the conditions are like on the actual rally, but I would imagine that we’ll have to work hard to find the right balance between speed and tyre wear.
This is a really fast rally so the trick is to lose as little time as possible whilst safeguarding the tyres on the exposed gravel. But there are of course five days before the rally starts so we will have to wait and see what it is like.
“We showed in [Rallye] Monte-Carlo that we have the speed to compete with those at the very top. So I’m ready for the fight and ready to bring some strong points home for the team”
Nasser Al-Attiyah said: “I am very happy to be back in the WRC with M-Sport, and I am sure it is going to be a really exciting rally. I quite like winter rallies, but for sure they are very different to the kinds of surfaces I am more used to competing on!
“The conditions have the potential to be quite tricky, but it is the same for everyone. Whatever the Swedish stages throw at us, we will all have to overcome the same challenges.
“I’m hoping that one of my fellow Qatar M-Sport drivers will win the rally – that would be the best result on my return to the WRC!”
Thierry Neuville said: “Snow is probably my least favourite surface. I’ve only competed in Sweden once before – last year. Our goal then was just to finish the rally. We were driving very carefully so weren’t as competitive as we would have liked to be.
This year it will be a lot more difficult. We need to finish, but we also need to show some speed and get a good result for the team. It will be a big challenge, but I am looking forward to it.
“We could see some gravel exposed on some of the stages which means we’ll need to be extra careful. If you damage the studs early on, you don’t just lose time on one stage, but on the remaining stages in the loop too.
“It is easier for the drivers when there is a lot of snow and big snow banks. Then you can guide the car around the corner. But if you go lightly wide where there are no banks, you’ll be straight in the ditch!”
Juho Hänninen said: “We are testing now [Friday 1 February] and it is all going really well. The temperature is around -15°C at the moment, so hopefully it will stay like this. Cold temperatures are good for the road – especially now as the snow has already started to melt. But if it stays like this, then I think we will be in for a really good winter rally.
“Having a layer of ice on the stages will help with preserving the tyres, especially on the second pass, as exposed gravel can damage the studs. It will be a difficult event for sure, but I believe, or rather I hope, the conditions will be a lot easier than they were at [Rallye] Monte-Carlo. Also there is no tyre choice – we all have the same – so that makes things a little easier too.
“But on the other hand, this is an event on which you need to be quick from the start. The rally is so fast that if you are caught sleeping on the first stages it is very difficult to take the time back.
“I’ve not competed here since 2008, but I am very happy with the car. We’re just working on improving a few small things with the set-up and everything is looking good for next week.”
Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team