This week the FIA World Rally Championship will swap the French Riviera for the snow-bound forests of southern Scandinavia when it heads to Sweden for round two of the 16-round series, the Swedish Rally. The event, commencing with a ceremonial...
This week the FIA World Rally Championship will swap the French Riviera for the snow-bound forests of southern Scandinavia when it heads to Sweden for round two of the 16-round series, the Swedish Rally. The event, commencing with a ceremonial start on Thursday 2 February from its base in the small university town of Karlstad, is the only true winter rally in the WRC.
While it's not unusual for temperatures in the area to plummet to minus 30C at this time of year, full snow conditions are by no means guaranteed. Last year the event was run in relatively mild conditions, giving a real mix of road conditions, including snow, ice and sections of frozen gravel.
The Swedish Rally remains a specialist event that demands a totally different approach from other rallies. With top speeds approaching 200kph, the ability to use the snow banks is essential and drivers 'lean' their cars against them on the exits of fast corners to help guide them round at maximum speed. To increase the grip, cars are run on narrow snow tyres fitted with tungsten carbide tipped studs that cut down through the icy surface to provide maximum traction. Local knowledge of the conditions still counts for a lot though -- in fact only one non-Scandinavian driver has won the event in the last 53 years, Sebastien Loeb in 2004.
Former world champion and Swedish Rally legend Stig Blomqvist deserves special mention, as this will be his 40th time competing on this event.
Kronos Total Citroen
After a fantastic result in one of the most challenging Monte Carlos in years, the Kronos Total Citroen World Rally Team finds itself at the foot of the Northern face of the championship. For this untypical event, which the Belgian team urges to discover, one 2006-Xsara will be entered for the two times World Champions Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, and a second one for their teammates Xavier Pons and Carlos Del Barrio. Like in Monte Carlo, Daniel Sordo and Marc Marti will also be present. The Junior World Champion will compete behind the wheel of a 2005-Xsara, rented by Kronos Racing to the Spaniard. Like before the Monte Carlo, most of the preparation work on the Xsara WRC has been conducted by Citroen Sport. It consisted in adapting the 2006 car to the Swedish special stages, especially the front and rear differentials. After a test session at mid-December, Sebastien Loeb found a balanced and reactive car, showing a good handling. As usual, after finetuning the set-up, the BFGoodrich range of 'Ice' tyres has been tried methodically. The Kronos Total Citroen WRT and its crews are ready.
Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena: Loeb on his Monte accident and recovery: "On spot, I really believed that everything was over! I insulted myself mentally. I thought about the lead we had built during the first leg, about the championship which wasn't starting the best way... in a word a big disappointment. Then we rang the team and they asked us how damaged the car was and then 'Bing'! As I had never competed in SupeRally before, I simply didn't think about it at all. I realised it wasn't really over yet. I ran back down to the car to check it carefully and Daniel [Elena - my co-driver] started to calculate how much time penalty my mistake will cost us. Our motivation went up again. The next day when we left the service park, we were quite pleased as the good side of this situation was that we had almost nothing to lose. It was 'no limits' - just to stay on the road and set good times. Actually, this recovery and this incredible finale made this Monte Carlo the most exciting we experienced." Sweden: "You really have to fight to loose as less time as possible, with studded tyre that the fresh snow stops from working efficiently and with a car difficult to handle."
Xavier Pons/Carlos Del Barrio: "I like this rally which I know quite well now. Of course for a Latin driver, the conditions aren't the best to perform. But I really enjoy driving on these very fast roads. It will be the championship's second round and I hope to score valuable points in spite of the fact I've never driven a WRC in such conditions and that I have everything to learn of the Xsara on snow. hope to progress throughout the rally. I feel really well in the team where everybody is very welcoming. The advice of Seb' and the trust that Marc van Dalen has given me make me want to do the best I can. I've understood what this extraordinary team is expecting and I will try not to deceive anyone."
The result of the OMV Team Stohl/Minor in Monte Carlo (4th overall place) has raised expectations of the OMV Peugeot Norway World Rally Team. Four days prior to the second WRC-run of the season tests on snow surface were completed in Norway. Thus Stohl and Solberg were able to complete 150 kilometres on ice and snow on Sunday on a four-kilometres-long test course, thereby emulating perfectly "Swedish" conditions. Naturally, the main focus was on the tyres: only 135 mm wide and equipped with 330 spikes of a length between 5,5 and 7 mm.
Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor: Stohl on testing: "The organisation of the tests was impeccable. Bozian Racing is doing a thoroughly perfect job and the people in charge in Norway were incredibly friendly and cooperative." "The tyres will decide this rally for although everybody will use the same kind of tyres there are huge differences as far as the durability of the spikes is concerned." Manfred Stohl will start Sweden in third position on the road. Stohl: "This is no disadvantage given the icy temperatures. Still, my goal for Sweden remains a top-8 place, for you have a lot of local heroes competing here who know each metre and have trained on this surface since they started rallying. But my feeling for the car is getting better by the day."
Henning Solberg/Cato Menkerud: Sweden is almost a home rally for Norwegian Henning Solberg. It is the eighth time off the starting ramp in Karlstad for the OMV driver. Therefore he has high expectations on his second outing with the OMV Peugeot Norway WRT. Solberg: "Monte Carlo was completely unchartered territory and we made the wrong choice of tyres several times. That shouldn't happen to us in Sweden. I know this rally inside out and want to be up front with the best. The tests have shown that I've got the right feeling for the car."
As Finns, opening round winners Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will feel comfortable in the snow and ice that makes this one of the most specialised rounds of the year. Both will drive the 2006-specification Ford Focus RS World Rally Car which won on its first full competitive outing in the French Alps earlier this month to power Gronholm and the BP-Ford World Rally Team into the lead of the drivers' and manufacturers' standings. Both tested in Sweden before Christmas, the first time either had climbed behind the wheel of the new car.
Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen: It is Gronholm's favourite rally, and one that he was won three times from 13 starts, and he would love nothing more than to celebrate his 38th birthday on the winners' podium on Sunday afternoon. "There's no doubt, the best way to celebrate my birthday would be with champagne on the winner's podium, but we have a lot of work to do before I can think about that," he said. "Sweden is the best rally in the championship when the conditions are good. To drive flat out on the snow and ice with such good grip from the studded tyres is really enjoyable. The car seems to float across the surface. "It's not so different driving on snow and ice compared with gravel. On the longer stages it is important to look after the tyres because if the studs start to pull out or move around, then you have to ease the pace. I had a good feeling with the Focus RS in the test and I hope to regain that during the shakedown ahead of the start on Thursday morning," he added. The cold weather should ensure that the frozen snow banks which line the forest tracks are there to provide a safety net for drivers. Drivers often 'lean' their cars into them to guide them around corners at maximum speed. "I don't try to use them that much but when you enter a corner too fast they can be a help. The problem is that a driver can't rely on them. If temperatures aren't cold enough to freeze the snow properly, instead of bouncing off the banks, cars can be dragged into the snow or plough through them and off the road," added Gronholm.
Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen: This will be Hirvonen's fourth start in Sweden and the 25-year-old is confident of a strong result. "I really enjoy this event and I will push hard from the start," he said. "I think it's possible to fight for a podium. If there is fresh snow overnight on Thursday, then we have an excellent start position for Friday. It will allow the new snow to be cleared off the road and give us a cleaner drive. "In winter conditions a driver can afford to let the tyres do more of the work than on gravel. You can slide the car more than and the studs are so good that in some places the grip is just as good as on a loose gravel surface," added Hirvonen.
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford
Just over a week after finishing one of the toughest rallies of his short career, 18-year-old Cumbrian Matthew Wilson will step up to the plate again for round two of the World Rally Championship in Sweden.
Matthew Wilson/Michael Orr: "Unlike the last round in Monte Carlo, I have got a vague idea of what to expect from this rally. I did three snow rallies in Finland a little over a year ago, so I have driven on the stuff before. Again, it's going to be an amazing experience to arrive at the second WRC round knowing that I'm part of it all. One of the differences to Monte will be the speed, it's so quick in Sweden -- nothing like some of the slower hairpins on round one. This will be flat-out motoring. When I drove on snow in Finland the thing which amazed me most was the grip. Everybody tells you it's the same as gravel, but until you're in there and drifting the car at some incredible speeds, you can't believe it. It's probably the braking that really gets me, though. Because the snow builds up in front of the wheel to slow you down even more, you can brake harder and later than you would ever have thought possible. It's going to be another fantastic experience!"
Kosti Katajamaki/Timo Alanne: "I don't have any experience of driving the Ford Focus RS WRC, but I have driven a World Rally Car before, when I tackled the Finnish Championship last year. The entry for this event is very strong this week, so it's hard to predict what would be a good result. Really I need experience of the car, so a finish with some good times in the stages would be nice for me."
The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two Impreza WRC2006 cars in the Swedish Rally. Having contested the event seven times in previous years, Petter Solberg finally achieved his dream of winning the rally he considers his 'home' event last year. He is aiming to repeat the win this year. Chris Atkinson will drive the second car, his first competitive outing in the Impreza WRC2006. Chris made his Swedish Rally debut last year, his first rally with the Subaru team. In other news Subaru announced that Chris Atkinson will contest Rally Ireland this year, a candidate event for inclusion in the 2007 World Rally Championship.
Petter Solberg/Phil Mills: "At the moment it's very exciting to see how the car and set-up perform in competitive conditions. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to show how good the car was in Monte Carlo, but the feeling is good. I hope we have a good chance to get the same result as last year in Sweden. This would just be brilliant as there will be a lot of people I know and a lot of support from Norway. I view this rally just like Rally Japan -- as my home event."
Chris Atkinson/Glen MacNeall: "We're obviously looking forward to the Swedish Rally, as it's one of the most enjoyable rallies of the year for a driver. However it's still a specialist event and although we'll be aiming for a good result, we'll still have to tread carefully. This will be my first rally with the new car, although I got a good feel for it when we tested in Sweden earlier this year. I'm quite happy with the performance but we've got a lot more learning to do. For this rally, a realistic goal is to get in the top six. There will be a lot of local drivers who know the conditions and roads well, however we'll aim to be towards the front."
Red Bull-Skoda Team
the team is looking to repeat or even improve upon the results of Monte Carlo, where both cars were able to finish and score points. If anyone is able to achieve that goal, it has to be Mattias Ekstrom. The 2004 DTM champion is a huge fan of rallying and has already shown in the past that he is very proficient at his snowy home event. He won the production class in 2004 and finished tenth overall in 2005 driving a Skoda Fabia WRC.
Mattias Ekstrom/Stefan Bergman: "I am very motivated for this year's event, I know the car and the stages as well. Consequently it should be possible to improve last year's result and finish in the points."
Andreas Aigner/Timo Gottschalk: Andreas Aigner has to break completely new ground in Sweden after his first assignment in Monte Carlo: "This means starting all over, I am an absolute beginner in Sweden, and I will have to try an approach similar to Monte Carlo. It is most important not to make any serious mistake and stay in the rally. I am particularly happy that Timo Gottschalk will be back after his ailment. I would like to take the opportunity and thank Klaus Wicha for filling in for Timo in Monte Carlo."