As the FIA World Rally Championship’s (WRC) only true winter event, Rally Sweden offers a unique challenge. Snow-covered stages and studded tyres provide one of the most spectacular events of the year and – having traditionally performed well at the Swedish fixture – M-Sport has its sights firmly set on further success.
Based in the rally-rich heart of Värmland, the region has benefited from significant snow-fall of late, which could well signal the return of some classic winter rallying.
But should the stages be covered with soft snow and little ice, the studs tear up the road surface leaving little room for error – exposed gravel threatening to damage the steel-tips and resulting in a considerable loss of traction.
Of course it’s not just tyres which are adapted to cope with the cold climate. The Ford Fiesta RS WRCs are fitted with extra protection to guard against the studded tyres and there are a few driver comforts to ensure the crews can perform to the best of their ability. The cars are fitted with heaters and the drivers and co-drivers benefit from such little luxuries as heated boots and thicker soled shoes.
As one of Scandinavia’s most celebrated drivers, the art of winter rallying comes naturally to the Finn who first learnt to drive whilst sitting on his father’s knee on a frozen lake. Needless to say, Hirvonen’s season starts here and he will be looking towards a podium finish.
By contrast, next week will mark Elfyn Evans’ first venture to Sweden’s snow-covered stages. The Welshman has never contested a snow rally with studded tyres, but with the knowledge and guidance of his experienced team mate, he will be well prepared for the challenges ahead. Partnered by co-driver Daniel Barritt, the pairing will be looking to gain as much knowledge and experience of the unfamiliar surface as possible. With the goal of making it through all 24 stages unscathed, next week provides another perfect opportunity for Evans to hone his skills and continue his development as one of the championship’s most promising up-and-coming young talents.
Mikko Hirvonen: “We’ve just completed a really good test and I’m feeling good. We knew from past experience that the Fiesta [RS WRC] would be really strong in the high-speed sections, and it was great to see that I had that same good feeling straight away.
“Rally Sweden is extra fun when it’s really cold and there is a lot of snow – there’s nothing better than bouncing your car off the compacted snow banks at high speed. Although the region has had some good snow fall recently, there might not be much ice and that could be tricky. It means that there will be a lot of gravel coming through the snow which makes tyre management really important.
“I’ve won this rally twice before, but I wouldn’t say that there was much of a secret to doing well here. It used to favour the Scandinavians, but I think last year proved that that is no longer the case and anyone can be quick here.
“The main thing to remember is to really commit to the stages. Especially in the high-speed sections, you need the confidence to go flat-out. It’s one of those events where a driver needs to really attack, but in the narrow sections you also have to be very precise. There’s a very narrow line that forms, and if you venture off that line you can easily find yourself in trouble.
“I really hope that we can get back to our best next week and be challenging for the top positions. Monte-Carlo was a really tricky event for us, so now I’m really looking forward to Sweden where I think we can be competitive. We’re certainly determined to show what we can do.”
Elfyn Evans: “This will be my first time driving a proper snow rally with full studded tyres, but I’m feeling good about the challenges ahead. We’ve had a really good test which has helped a lot with the confidence, but obviously the rally itself will be a completely different experience. Even the recce will be new to us – discovering how to best prepare the notes for these kinds of conditions.
“I think that the type of snow we encounter will be key. At the moment, it looks like it’s going to be fairly mild in Värmland so that could make it quite tricky and we will need to ensure that we take care to look after the studded tyres. We just need to take everything as it comes, one stage at a time, and gain as much experience as possible.
“Of course Mikko [Hirvonen] and Jarmo [Lehtinen] are well versed when it comes to this event. They have a lot of experience on snow and have won the rally twice already so we’ll be looking to harness their experience as much as we can. They’ve already been really helpful. After Monte and during this week’s test we have exchanged a lot of questions. Their advice will be invaluable to us next week, and I’m sure they’ll continue to share their knowledge throughout the event.”
M-Sport World Rally Team