WRC set for red-hot action at sub-zero Rally Sweden

Image courtesy of Toyota Gazoo Racing

WRC set for red-hot action at sub-zero Rally Sweden

Rallying

WRC set for red-hot action at sub-zero Rally Sweden

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Remote and frozen forests in northern Sweden will provide an intimidating challenge as the FIA World Rally Championship enters uncharted territory this week for the second chapter of its new hybrid era.

Never before has Rally Sweden (Feb. 24-27) journeyed so close to the Arctic Circle. With temperatures plunging to a bone-chilling -4 degrees Fahrenheit in the host city of Umea this week, the special stages in the Vasterbotten region will test rallying’s elite to the full.

After a year’s absence due to the COVID pandemic, the new-look Rally Sweden offers perfect conditions for the WRC’s only pure winter fixture as ice- and snow-covered roads weave through picture-postcard forests.

Winter rallying demands a unique approach. Drivers “lean” their cars against snowbanks to guide them around the turns, while studded tires bite into the ice to provide remarkable grip and ensure that, paradoxically, this will be one of the year’s fastest events.

Nordic drivers have traditionally dominated in Sweden, but their grip is loosening and 21-year-old “Flying Finn” Kalle Rovanpera, who heads the entry in his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1, is taking nothing for granted.

“We start first on the road and will have some road cleaning to do there on the first day,” he acknowledged. “In testing we were starting from zero with the snow setup for the new car and it felt a bit tricky to drive in the beginning. But, together with our teammates, I think we have made some good steps in the right direction during the two tests we’ve had.”

Backing up Rovanpera’s optimism, he posted fastest time in Thursday’s pre-event shakedown, posting a scorching 3m22.4s time on the 4.2-mile test stage to edge Hyundai’s Ott Tanak by 0.3s.

Elfyn Evans hopes to turn Monte Carlo frustration into an early advantage in Sweden. McKlein/Motorsport Images

Among Rovanpera’s Toyota teammates are Britain’s Elfyn Evans, who won Sweden’s last WRC event two years ago (albeit one decidedly lacking in snow and ice). He’s desperate to bounce back from a disappointing season opener at the Monte Carlo Rally, where he slid off the road on the second day and went on to finish a lowly 21st. The silver lining is a favorable start position for the opening day’s stages on Friday.

Esapekka Lappi returns to Toyota’s factory roster for the first time since leaving the Japanese manufacturer at the end of 2018. He’s taking over from Monte Carlo runner-up and reigning WRC champ Sebastien Ogier, who’s taking on only a part-time campaign in 2022.

Incredibly, this will be the first WRC event without either eight-time champ Ogier or his fellow Sebastien and Frenchman, nine-time champ Loeb, since the 2006 season-closing Rally GB. Loeb won last month’s Monte Carlo Rally in a (so far) one-off drive for Ford, but the 47-year-old legend could add more events later in the season.

But back to the drivers who will be in Sweden, and Japan’s Takamoto Katsuta completes a Toyota quartet, driving a GR Yaris Rally1 for the marque’s developmental Next Generation squad.

If Ford is to continue its fast WRC start to 2022, Craig Breen figures to lead the way. McKlein/Motorsport Images

M-Sport Ford was fastest out of the blocks with the new-generation cars on the Monte Carlo Rally, but with Loeb not on the entry list, Craig Breen heads the British-based squad in a Puma Rally1. The Irishman is on a strong run of four consecutive podium finishes after finishing third at the season opener.

Breen is joined by Brit Gus Greensmith, fresh from his maiden stage victory on the Monte, and Frenchman Adrien Fourmaux, who will be focused on a solid drive after a massive crash in the French Alps last time out.

Thierry Neuville leads Hyundai Motorsport’s squad in an i20 N Rally1. The Belgian was Hyundai’s best performer at a difficult opening round for the Korean manufacturer and is again joined by the marque’s shakedown pacesetter Tanak and Oliver Solberg.

Oliver Solberg will be out to uphold both family and national honor. McKlein/Motorsport Images

Solberg is competing on his home event, and while this is his first start in the WRC’s headlining class, the 20-year old is no stranger to competing on snow and ice. And for advice, he need to look no further than his father and 2003 WRC champ Petter, who won the 2005 Rally Sweden driving for Subaru.

Umea hosts the ceremonial start Thursday evening. Friday’s first leg begins the flat-out action, with seven special stages totaling 78.12 competitive miles. Eight more stages follow on Saturday, before Sunday’s final four stages take the total distance to 188.74 miles.

Check out WRC.com, the official home of the FIA World Rally Championship. And for the ultimate WRC experience, sign up for a WRC+ subscription to watch all stages of every rally live and on demand, whenever and wherever.

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