It was mission accomplished for the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team today as Mads Østberg charged into a podium position. There were also some promising performances from the Norwegian’s fellow Qatari-liveried Ford Fiesta RS WRCs as Evgeny Novikov, Thierry Neuville and Juho Hänninen maintained fifth, sixth and seventh places respectively.
Adopting a mature approach over the morning loop, team-mate Novikov was also demonstrating his growth as a world class contender. Driving within his limits whilst showcasing flashes of speed, the Muscovite was on course to take the stage victory on the crews’ first visit to Fredriksberg (SS10). But the super-quick test denied the young Russian when he made minor contact with a snow bank towards the end of the stage.
Elsewhere, the battle between Qatar World Rally Team’s Hänninen and Neuville was hotting up. Working hard to gain confidence to harness the Fiesta RS WRC’s speed, the Finn’s sixth place was being hunted down by Belgium’s latest protégé. Another young driver with a mature head on his shoulders, Neuville set some promising times to bring the gap down to just over ten seconds – all the while improving his pacenotes for a second attack over the following loop.
But there was disappointment for fellow Qatar Word Rally Team driver Matthew Wilson. Carrying too much speed into a left-hand corner on the first stage of the day (SS9), the Brit rolled his Fiesta RS WRC. With no mechanical damage, but unable to right his stricken car, the 25-year-old was forced to Rally 2 and will restart under the regulation tomorrow.
Continuing his resurgent comeback over the afternoon loop, Østberg charged into what has become a regular podium position for the Norwegian on this wintry event. With another succession of strong times, the 25-year-old claimed third position over the second pass of Fredriksberg (SS14) and continued to strengthen his lead over Latvala through the following tests.
The afternoon also saw team-mate Novikov show some impressive pace on what is only his second venture to the snow-covered stages of Rally Sweden. Setting a fifth, two fourths and a third- fastest time, the Muscovite improved his previous performance on each stage to consolidate what will equal his best ever result from the event.
Elsewhere in the battle for sixth place, Neuville and Hänninen continued to trade stage times until the final test of the day. Becoming lodged in a snow bank on SS16, the Finn lost over a minute forcing him to forfeit his advantage in favour of his young team-mate.
Mads Østberg (3rd) said: “I think we can be happy with the job we have done today. We achieved our objective, which was to climb into the top three, and have managed to increase the gap to Jari-Matti [Latvala].
“I’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s Norwegian stages, but realistically I think we need to concentrate on our own pace and holding onto this position. [Sébastien] Loeb and [Sébastien] Ogier have been setting some really good times and they will be difficult to catch now.
“I will continue to fight, but we also need to think. You cannot win a rally on a single stage, but you can for sure lose one!”
Evgeny Novikov (5th) said: “I am happy with our performance today. We didn’t come here to necessarily fight for victory and we are now in a strong fifth place which would equal my best ever result from this event.
“We are just using the time wisely now to improve the pacenotes over the second pass of each day so that we will have more knowledge and be even stronger for next year. I’m feeling more and more confident after each stage and we set some quite good times this afternoon so I am happy.”
Thierry Neuville (6th) said: “Today has been good and I think we have learnt a lot. We’ve been working hard on the pacenotes – making small changes from the morning to improve over the afternoon – and I think that has paid off.
“We had a small problem on the second stage [SS15] which cost us maybe three or four seconds. It was at a junction and I got stuck between two gears and nearly stalled the engine, but we didn’t lose too much time so it was not so bad.
“We’re now in sixth place which I think would be a really good result for us. This is only my second time here so if we can continue like this I will be very happy.”
Juho Hänninen (7th) said: “Today had been going well and I was feeling more confident with the car, but then on the last stage [SS16] we got stuck in a snow bank and lost a lot of time. It was maybe 100 metres before the finish and it took a long time to get back on the stage.
“Obviously it was very disappointing for us – especially as it was on the last stage of the day – but luckily we have only lost one place and I hope we can continue to improve the pace tomorrow.”
Matthew Wilson (Rally 2) said: “This is one of those rallies where experience counts for a lot, so having not competed here for a couple of years, I was on the back foot from the off to be honest. The splits [on SS9] were coming really well. I heard a note from Gio [Bernacchini, co- driver] into a left-hander and I don’t know whether I was thinking, ‘I’ll just push a little bit more’, but I braked a fraction too late and was in a gear too high. I turned in and the rear began to slide. We hit a snow bank and it just dragged the car in and onto its roof – after that there was nothing we could do. It was purely driver error and I can’t blame anyone else but myself.
“The car is OK – there was a bit of damage to the rear wing and a few other panels, but other than that it is fine and we’ll be able to restart tomorrow. Obviously we’ll be clearing lots of snow again, but it’s just like getting back on a bike when you’ve fallen off. You simply need to get on with it.”
Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said: “We achieved our objective from last night, which was to get Mads [Østberg] into the top three. We’ll continue to put pressure on the guys in front tomorrow, but realistically it will be difficult to catch them [Loeb and Ogier] if they continue to show the same pace as they have today. Having said that, we travel to Mads’ native Norway tomorrow and I’m sure the home fans will be out to give him plenty of encouragement!
“We’ve also seen some strong times from Evgeny [Novikov], Thierry [Neuville] and Juho [Hänninen] who have all upped their performance. The privateers too have performed well and if we can keep six Fords in the top-ten at the end of the rally then this will definitely be a positive.”