Central Sweden's numbing cold and barren, ice-bound countryside traditionally provide the harshest environment of the FIA World Rally Championship season and a cruel contrast to the glitz of last month's opening round in Monte Carlo. The rally...
Central Sweden's numbing cold and barren, ice-bound countryside traditionally provide the harshest environment of the FIA World Rally Championship season and a cruel contrast to the glitz of last month's opening round in Monte Carlo.
The rally is the only pure winter event of the 16-round series. Fast, flowing and frozen snow-covered roads are a driver's delight as tyres fitted with tungsten-tipped steel studs bite into the icy surface to provide incredible grip. But until last week, the Varmland region which hosts the event was lacking the main ingredient for a winter rally - snow. However, recent falls and temperatures dropping to -10C suggest conditions will be tolerable, with more snow forecast in the week.
What might be missing are the frozen snow banks which line the tracks. Drivers use them as an integral part of their driving style, 'leaning' their cars into them to guide them around corners at maximum speed. Difficulties arise if temperatures are not cold enough to freeze the snow adequately. Instead of bouncing off the packed banks, cars can be either dragged into the crumbling snow where they become stuck or plough through them and off the road.
World Champion Sebastien Loeb goes to Sweden hoping to repeat his win of last year, whilst Peugeot drivers Marcus Gronholm and Markko Martin, as well as Ford's Toni Gardemeister and Subaru's Petter Solberg will all be aiming for the top step of the podium.
Gardemeister's nominated Ford team-mate for this event will be Henning Solberg (older brother of Petter) whilst Harri Rovanpera will be joined at Mitsubishi by Italy's Gianluigi Galli. Skoda have a completely different lineup to Monte Carlo after Armin Schwarz injured his shoulder during an accident - indeed the Czech team will have used 5 different drivers after only two events of the new season by the time Sweden is over. Finn's Janne Tuohino and Jani Paasonen are joined by DTM Champion Mattias Ekstrom in the Fabia WRCs.
Twelve months ago, Sebastien Loeb, Daniel Elena, the Xsara WRC and the Citroën team collectively wrote a fresh page of rallying history on this event when Seb toppled the Swedish stronghold to put an end to over half a century of Nordic rule. The fall-out from that achievement was directly proportional to its importance! For the third year running, after winning the Monte Carlo Rally, the Citroën driver goes to Karlstad as championship leader and will therefore run first on the road again during the opening leg.
Sebastien Loeb / Daniel Elena: "If there is overnight snow (on Thursday night), my aim will be to drop as little time as possible during the first leg and then to win back as much time as possible over the following two days. The common denominator for all three legs will be the importance of not making any mistakes."
Francois Duval / Stephane Prevot: "For Sweden, it's important to feel confident to be on the pace from the start so as to not lose touch with the leaders. The local drivers know what that pace is, but we're much less accustomed to it. I want to reach the finish to score my first points of the year.
The Swedish Rally will be the first time that the Subaru World Rally Team has entered a three-car team since Rallye Sanremo 2002, when Tommi Makinen, Petter Solberg and Achim Mortl represented the Japanese manufacturer.
Subaru's lead driver Petter Solberg has contested the event six times previously. Finishing third last year, and with experience of winter competition gained in his native Norway, Solberg is looking for another podium result this time in Sweden.
On his second rally with the SWRT, Stephane Sarrazin will drive the other points-nominated Impreza WRC2004, while Subaru's latest signing Chris Atkinson will make his WRC competitive debut in a third identical car. Neither Chris nor Stephane has competed on snow before, and both will be seeking to learn more about the unique event over the weekend.
Petter Solberg / Phil Mills: "The main thing is to get some points now. The plan at the beginning is to aim for a podium position but after we've seen how Friday goes, we may change that. We'll have to wait and see. This rally has always been a bit difficult for me, but was much better last year. Although the overall result was a bit of a shame, I had a good feeling in the car. The testing we've done for this event has been very good and we're going to see if we can make any more improvements ahead of the start. You need to have a very aggressive driving style on snow because the tyres are narrower than normal. This is Chris' first event and I think he'll do well. I have a good feeling about his future as he has a good mentality. The team are doing an excellent job supporting both him and Stephane."
Stephane Sazzazin/Patrick Pivato: "It's very exciting to drive on snow. I've done some testing and have a good feeling, but I'm still short on experience. I have a very good car, so it's good for me to learn and I'll try to improve during the rally. Driving on snow is more fun than on tarmac. Asphalt is very quick and you have excellent grip, but on snow you slide all the time and it's important to be very confident on your driving line. I hope to be fast, but I don't have any times to compare myself to at the moment, so we'll have to see after the shakedown. I know I need to push and improve my style, but I have very good car and that helps a lot."
Chris Atkinson/Glen Macneall: "I'm really excited to have this opportunity. Even though it's only been a couple of months since my position was announced, it feels like I've been waiting for ages now - I want to start competing. The snow conditions are something that I think about of course, but I'll just be concentrating on getting overall experience during this event. The driving style on snow is not that different from driving on gravel, so it's not as much of a jump for me as people might think. The way you approach corners and the way to carry speed is similar, but you have to be more careful when braking on snow than on gravel, as you don't have the same amount of tyre on the road. It'll also be difficult because there are a lot of Scandinavians competing in World Rally Cars, but I'll be concentrating on improving each day. The key target is to get experience and to finish the event."
Debutant drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Tomanek gave BP-Ford a superb start to the season on the French asphalt in their Focus RS World Rally Cars. Second for Gardemeister and eighth for Kresta means the team will start the Swedish Rally (10 - 13 February) as joint leaders of the manufacturers' series. It is strengthened by the addition of Norwegians Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud, who are nominated for manufacturer points alongside Gardemeister, in place of Kresta who is less experienced in these specialised conditions.
Toni Gardemeister/Jakke Honkanen: "The roads are fast and flowing and it's fun to play with the car in winter conditions. Competing on snow is similar to driving on a fast gravel rally. Sometimes studs give even better grip than gravel. If there is a clear line on the road, it's important to stay in it because that's where the grip is found. Move off the line onto fresh snow and the grip becomes less and time is wasted. It's still early in my career with Ford and the Focus RS, but this is one of the rallies where I think a win is realistic. Much depends on the weather. We will start the first day second on the road. If temperatures are above freezing and the snow is soft, we will have poor grip in that position and will lose time clearing the snow for those behind to have a cleaner line. But if it's old snow and the roads are frozen and icy, then grip will be good,"
Roman Kresta/Jan Tomanek: "It's easier for me now that I don't have to worry about points because I can concentrate on improving my knowledge. If I can score drivers' points that would be superb, but it will be difficult because there are many competitive drivers and cars entered. My result in Monte Carlo gave me good confidence. Every day I was quicker and on the final leg my speed was constant, not just on some stages. I have a much better feeling with the car."
Henning Solberg/Cato Menkerud: "I started competing on snow and that's why I love those conditions. I'm delighted Ford has the confidence to nominate me for manufacturer points. I drove a 2002-specification Focus last weekend in Norway and that was the best car I've driven. The 2004 Focus will be even better. I will have the best car and the best tyres, so the rest is down to me. I like to have en easy car to drive and the Focus is smooth. I'm looking forward to competing in a car with the gearchange system mounted on the steering wheel. I've never had that opportunity before but it's much easier and faster."
After finishing with both its cars in the points in Monte Carlo, Peugeot Sport travels to the season's second round in Sweden where it will be looking to add a further win to the four Swedish Rally successes it has secured since 2000. The team's colours will be represented by Marcus Gronholm and Markko Martin, while a third 307 WRC has been entered for local youngster Daniel Carlsson.
Marcus Gronholm / Timo Rautiainen: "I love the Swedish Rally because it's fun to drive. I hope this year's event goes well for me. I think I have a very good chance. I came 2nd last year on what was only the 307 WRC's second outing after dropping a minute early on. Since then, the car has progressed and our testing in Sweden in December went particularly well."
Markko Martin/Michael Park: "Along with Finland and New Zealand, the Swedish is one of my three favourite events.. I momentarily led the rally in 2004 and this year will be my first experience with the 307 WRC off asphalt (Markko was speaking before his scheduled test in the Varmland a week before the start). The car is intrinsically very competitive and Marcus proved that with some top stage times in Sweden last season. That's very encouraging and I will certainly give it my absolute best."
The Skoda Motorsport World Rally Team heads for the Swedish Rally (February 10- 13) with three Scandinavian drivers at the wheel of the Fabia WRC. Janne Tuohino will be the nominated driver alongside Audi Sport's DTM Champion Mattias Ekstrom who joins the team from Skoda Motorsport's partner in the VW Group for a one-off drive. It is Janne's first drive for the team while Mattias arrives in Karlstad after dominating a recent Swedish national event with the Red Bull-liveried Fabia WRC as he prepared for his first WRC event in a manufacturer-nominated car. A third Fabia WRC will be driven by Jani Paasonen who is standing-in for the injured Armin Schwarz. It is his third event for the team but his first time in the Fabia WRC on snow as the testing was carried out by Mattias and Janne.
Janne Tuohino/Mikko Markkula: "This is one of my favourite rallies. I got my best result there when I finished fourth last year and I got two fastest times during the event. The big question is whether there is going to be enough snow to be able to use the snow banks to drive quicker."
Mattias Ekstrom/Stefan Bergman: "I'm really looking forward to competing at this level for the first time in a factory car. Being nominated by Skoda Motorsport for points doesn't put any extra pressure on me but the fact that the team has felt it can trust me with the responsibility actually gives me even more confidence. All I am hoping for is a good clean run from start to finish."
Janni Paasonen/Janni Vainikka: "It isn't perhaps the way that I would have liked to get this drive and I'm sorry for Armin but all the same I'm feeling very happy to have the chance. Sweden is one of my favourite events and I hope that I can get a good result for the team. The car is very good and so I am confident we can do well."
After a points-scoring debut with the Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sports team in Monte-Carlo, Harri Rovanpera and Risto Pietilainen once again lead the team's assault on the forthcoming Swedish Rally, the second round of the series and the only true winter event in the Championship. "Gigi" Galli and Guido D'Amore get their first taste of 2005 competition in the second Mitsubishi Lancer WRC05 and the crews will be looking for a solid performance on the car's first outing on snow.
Harri Rovanpera/Risto Pietilainen: "Sweden is absolutely one of my favorite rallies. "After the test we can say we have the best set-up available to us, but at the moment it's obviously difficult to know exactly what the conditions will be like. With proper winter conditions, ice and snow, it is a great rally to drive and one that's also really fast. After Monte-Carlo I'm feeling confident for the future".
Gigi Galli/Guido D'Amore: "We did two days of testing in the north of Sweden in December and I was very satisfied with my driving style and, for me, I have always driven on Pirelli tires in this rally so I know them very well. There is no comparison between Group N and the world rally car. With the Lancer WRC you can drive very cleanly; you can take good lines, brake late, change gear in the middle of corners, everything is possible. With Group N cars, you have to drive much more sideways, but it is a production car, so this is normal. Our goal this year is to help with the development of the car, but it is going to be very interesting for me to compare my performance and tire choice against Harri, who knows this event well and has won it before".