Sébastien Ogier preserved his perfect start to the 2016 WRC season by securing a dominant victory and bagging another maximum point haul at Rally Sweden. Leading the pack from start to finish, the French star’s eventual 29.8sec winning margin doesn’t tell the whole story on what was a particularly stern test of the three-time world champion’s speed, concentration and consistency.
Taking no time at all to adjust to the 2016-spec Hyundai i20, Hayden Paddon produced another attention-grabbing drive to match his career-best WRC finish of second. In the process, the Kiwi pilot made history by becoming the first ever non-European to mount the podium in Sweden. Paddon benefitted greatly from his lower position in the running order and even looked poised to usurp Ogier for the lead at one point on Saturday, before seeing his challenged rebuffed. Third was Mads Østberg who bagged M-Sport’s first podium of the season thanks to an accomplished drive on familiar wintery roads, several of which crossed the border into his native Norway.
First run in 1950, Rally Sweden, characterised by its sweeping snow drifts and frozen tundra landscape, originally started life as a summer event. Traditionally known as a fortress for local drivers, remarkably it wasn’t until 2004 when a non-Scandinavian took top honours here, in the form of Sébastien Loeb. Since then, only Ogier has repeated that feat, in 2013 and 2015. The undisputed highlight of the Karlstad-based is the infamous gravity-defying Colin’s Crest in Vargåsen, scene of many an iconic WRC image over the years.
However, WRC 2016’s only true winter event may not have gone ahead at all due to a severe lack of the white stuff in the lead up to the rally. Temperatures above zero and persistent rainfall during the pre-event recce on Wednesday and Thursday cast serious doubt over whether the route was fit for service. Melted snow and ice caked the roads in a sloshy layer of soft mud, fuelling fears that the obligatory use of studded tyres would churn the surface into an unusable state. Despite almost a third of the original route being cancelled, including the traditional opening super special stage at the Karlstad trotting track, the 63rd edition of Rally Sweden did indeed go ahead thanks to the tireless efforts of organisers and volunteers through the night on Thursday.
The days of uncertainty and disruption in the lead up to Friday’s opening leg did nothing to knock Volkswagen Motorsport’s Sébastien Ogier off his stride. The triple world champion made a blistering start to proceedings, winning all three morning stages to build a 24.2sec lead over the rest of the field. However, heavy afternoon snow – the first for days in the Karlstad region – quickly put the brakes on Ogier’s serene early progress. Hampered by his position as road-opener, the Frenchman began to find himself bogged as he ploughed a furrow through the freshly fallen blanket of snow.
Quick to capitalise on the leader’s troubles was Hyundai’s Hayden Paddon. Taking to the new generation i20 like a duck to water, the Kiwi profited from his low start position by guiding his new machinery through the tracks created by those ahead of him, including Ogier. A brace of fastest times on Friday evening propelled Paddon from sixth to second, displacing early pace setters, Meeke, Neuville and Latvala. The former looked rapid from the off and snatched second with the fastest time on stage 7, only to then squander his good work by ploughing into a buried stone on the next test. The impact was serious enough to render Meeke’s DS3 undriveable, prompting a reluctant but inevitable retirement. The Abu Dhabi Racing man joined other high profile casualties Thierry Neuville and Jari-Matti Latvala on the side lines after both men suffered terminal transmission problems. The latter’s Polo R held out grimly until Friday’s final stage, when it finally succumbed to driveshaft damage and ground to a halt.
As Ogier awoke and draw back the curtains on Saturday morning, his 26.9sec overnight cushion would have felt like an uncomfortably thin one. 10cm of snow overnight carpeted the roads in a thick layer of the white stuff, rendering conditions for the road-opener highly undesirable. Miraculously, the VW number one scored fastest time in the first stage to slightly widen his advantage, but thereafter the predictably tricky conditions slowed Ogier’s progress significantly. Sensing his opportunity, Paddon mounted a fierce counter-attack, carving a sizable 24sec chunk out of Ogier’s lead on stage 12 alone to narrow the gap to a slender 8.8sec.
However, Ogier was not about to lose his cast iron nerve and, in true champion’s fashion, responded with a counter offensive of his own on Saturday’s final three stages. As gravel began to peak through the by now compacted snow cover, grip returned to the tyres of Ogier’s Polo R allowing him to push flat out once again and halt the Paddon charge. The New Zealander meanwhile struggled to maintain his earlier rhythm, as his i20’s increasingly worn studded tyres proved less conducive to afternoon conditions. A brief sideways moment on the penultimate stage could so easily have cost him dear, but by Saturday evening, a drained but contented Ogier had successfully nudged his advantage back up to 17.1 secs.
It was a lead that the reigning champion wouldn’t relinquish on Sunday’s sole surviving special stage. Not content to simply throttle back and preserve his lead, Ogier mounted one final attack to snatch all three bonus points on the event closing power stage to seal his 34th career victory in some style.
Paddon’s impressive run to second more than justified Team Principle Michel Nandan’s faith to promote the New Zealander to Hyundai’s senior squad for Rally Sweden. He did suffer a serious scare on the very last stage after puncturing his i20’s radiator on a wooden post just metres from the finish. Fortunately for Paddon and co-driver John Kennard, the hole was small enough to patch up and, with the help of a champagne bottle filled with cooling fluid, the pair was able to carefully negotiate the 85km liaison section to the finish. Paddon’s performance in the Scandinavian snow should assure that he keeps his seat in the number 4 car for Mexico’s gravel showdown next month.
25.8sec further back in third on the podium was M-Sport’s Mads Østberg, the best result for Malcolm Wilson’s outfit since Elfyn Evans’s second place in Corsica last year. The Norwegian wowed his home fans who had made the short hop over the border to Sweden in their droves. Despite briefly losing third on Saturday’s opener to compatriot Andreas Mikkelsen, the latter hit trouble later that day gifting the Fiesta RS pilot a clear and untroubled run to the finish.
Had it not been for an incorrect pace note from new co-driver Anders Jaeger, Mikkelsen may have been able to cement a second consecutive podium finish. However, after a gung-ho approach into a tight corner half-way through stage 11, the VW number three span his Polo R off the road, losing almost 20secs and with it any realistic podium aspirations.
DMACK’s Ott Tänak and Hyundai’s Dani Sordo secured fifth and sixth respectively. The Spaniard initially found himself mixing it with the leaders and rose to third after stage 4. However, a lack of grip once the snow finally arrived combined with a front left puncture on Saturday afternoon killed off any hopes Sordo might have harboured of clinching a 39th career podium.
Vastly experienced local favourite Henning Solberg returned to the WRC fray for a one off drive and rolled back the years with a popular run to seventh place, just ahead of a young man at the opposite end of his rallying career, Abu Dhabi Racing’s Craig Breen. The Irishman, in his maiden outing at the wheel of a WRC spec Citroën DS 3, admitted before the event that just competing in the world’s premiere rallying series was a dream come true. Despite this, the 26-year old showed no signs of being overawed by the occasion, guiding his DS3 to eighth overall in a highly mature drive. Former M-Sport man Elfyn Evans continued to answer the doubters following his demotion to WRC2 by taking a second consecutive category win. The Welshman now leads the series by a full 32 points after just 2 rounds.
Ogier’s second triumph of the season sees the Frenchman enter familiar territory in the drivers’ championship as he now sits 23 points clear of teammate Mikkelsen in the albeit embryonic classification. For Volkswagen, an eleventh win in a row, stretching back to Rally Portugal 2015, represented the German manufacturer’s 36th triumph in 41 rallies since its entry into the sport. That domination looks set to continue with at least two of its three pilots starting the 2016 campaign in fine form. The inconsistency of number two driver Jari-Matti Latvala represents the only cause for mild concern in Wolfsburg, however the early signs would indicate that a fourth manufacturers’ title on the spin is well within VW’s reach this year.
For rounds 3 and 4 of the 2016 championship, the WRC embarks on its annual Latin American leg where the teams will get their first taste of pure gravel roads this season. Sébastien Ogier will be out to keep his perfect scorecard intact as the action switches to Mexico from the 3-6 March.
Final Results: Round 2 – Rally Sweden
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