Written by Apostolos Papageorgiou, Edited by Sasha Macmillen
With Rally Monte Carlo still fresh in everyone’s mind, the World Rally Championship heads to arguably its most unique venue of the year, in Sweden. The Scandinavian forest provides a spectacular backdrop for what is the only rally run on snow in the calendar. That means the drivers will have to avoid the notorious Swedish snow banks that can easily catch out the unwary. Helping them in their quest to stay on the road are the studded Pirelli tyres. Used exclusively for this round, they are much narrower, digging further into the snow-covered stages in search of optimum grip.
Until 20 years ago, Sweden used to be dominated by Scandinavians, with no foreigner able to beat them since the rally’s first appearance in 1973, Stig Blomqvist holding bragging rights, having scored seven wins in total. To this day, only five drivers not from Finland, Sweden and Norway have managed to step on the top step of the podium in the event, two of them being Sebastien Loeb - the first to do so, and his compatriot Sebastien Ogier.
The other three are Ott Tänak, Elfyn Evans and Thierry Neuville. All of them want to repeat the feat this year in order to prevent Kalle Rovanperä, also a former winner here in 2022, from building a lead in the championship. The Finn’s task looks set to be an uphill battle, as he will have to be the first car on the road on Friday at least, in the absence of Monte winner Ogier. Elfyn Evans looked competitive in Monte Carlo, but a puncture cost him dearly. He’d like to keep it clean in Sweden, avoiding another retirement like the one in 2022 being his top priority. Thierry Neuville was the only non-Toyota to take any stage wins in Monte Carlo and even though a win here looks to be a stretch, another podium would be more than likely. As for Tänak, he suffered his fair share of issues in the season opener, but redeemed himself by going second fastest in the power stage. He knows he has what it takes to be victorious here, but whether his Puma Rally1 will be up to the job remains a mystery.
Further down the field, Takamoto Katsuta will be stepping up to the works team for the first time, filling the gap left by Ogier. Sixth in Monte Carlo was promising, although a suspension failure on the final stage prevented him from fighting for fifth. A similar result here could be a real possibility. Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi will be much more at home in the snow than on asphalt and could be knocking on the door of the championship contenders. M-Sport’s second car will once again be driven by Pierre-Louis Loubet. The Frenchman showed pace in Monte, but a series of problems and crashes ended his rally prematurely, so a finish would be a welcome result. This will also be Graig Breen’s first rally back with Hyundai after an unsuccessful stint at M-Sport. The Irishman is somewhat of a snow expert and could provide a solid backup to his full-time teammates. Lorenzo Bertelli is also making a debut in a Yaris Rally1 car, with his own privately entered team.
Sweden also sees the return of Oliver Solberg, now eligible for championship points, along with Nikolay Gryazin, who was robbed of his Monte Carlo win after receiving a post rally penalty for cutting a corner. You can bet he’ll be out for revenge in Sweden. Also there will be Teemu Sunninen for Hyundai and reigning champion Emil Lindholm in a Skoda Fabia Rally2.
Sweden also hosts the inaugural round of the Junior World Rally Championship, where potential stars of the future fight it out for an eventual shot at the big league of rallying.