Sébastien Ogier grabbed a last-gasp victory after a pulsating climax to Rally Sweden 2015 in which three drivers entered the final stage covered by a mere 4.6 seconds. 3.0secs in arrears going in to the final stage, it looked as if the world champion would have to content himself with second place for once. However, with barely a handful of kilometres to run, leader Andreas Mikkelsen spun agonisingly in to a snow bank, clearing the way for his Volkswagen teammate to snatch victory by 6.4secs.
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, en route to his 2013 title. Highlights of the Karlstad-based even include Friday’s crossing in to Norwegian territory as well as the infamous gravity-defying Colin’s Crest in Vargåsen, scene of many an iconic WRC image over the years.
Despite the threat of chilling sub-25°C temperatures, the main problem facing the teams heading in to Friday’s opening leg was in fact the lack of snow. Mild temperatures during the week leading up to the rally had reduced some of the route to an icy slush, in places exposing the gravel surface beneath. Under normal circumstances this would spell good news for the grip-hungry drivers but when your car is kitted out with metal studded winter tyres, the bare grit surface is likely to deal some serious damage to the rubber.
Not that this deterred championship leader Ogier, who slotted immediately in to the groove with three out of four stage wins. 2014 winner and fellow Polo pilot Jari-Matti Latvala remained hot on his heals however, and the Finn, who has three Sweden victories to his name, briefly narrowed the gap when Ogier’s bonnet flipped up on stage 7, cracking his windscreen. Worse was to come later in the day for both men when, on the penultimate stage, Ogier ploughed in to a snow bank costing him 40secs and dropping him to fourth. Latvala looked set to capitalise but just minutes later he too was in trouble. The Finn’s Polo R momentarily lost grip on an exposed patch of gravel, causing the rear end to swing out and slam in to a snow drift. The resulting impact was enough to suck the car in to the ditch below, leaving Latvala stranded for over 8mins and any hopes of repeating his 2014 victory shattered.
This drama promoted the number three VW of Mikkelsen up to pole position heading in to day 2. Behind him, Hyundai star Thierry Neuville recovered from a slow start on the slushy surface to finish the day within 20secs of the lead Polo. He overhauled Mads Østberg’s Citroën DS3 on the last stage after the Norwegian had spent much of the day tussling for third with compatriot Mikkelsen.
Behind Ogier in fourth were Ott Tänak and Hayden Paddon, the latter filling in for the injured Dani Sordo in his Hyundai i20. It was a bad day for the Brits however, with both Kris Meeke and Elfyn Evans leaving the road on Friday. The Welshman had been running a steady sixth, but beached his Fiesta RS on a snow bank on stage 8 to end the day tenth.
The award for performance of the day on Saturday undoubtedly went to Neuville who posted a string of consistently fast times, culminating in an exemplary display on the final test which left him top of the pile by Saturday evening. The Belgian, who scored a top three time in each of the day’s eight stages, took full advantage of his low position in the running order to hunt down previous leader Mikkelsen and simultaneously blunt the challenge of a recovering Sébastien Ogier.
The Hyundai number one’s cause was greatly aided when Mikkelsen squandered almost all of his 20.8sec advantage after contact with a snow bank sent his Polo R in to a spin. This slip up left Ogier breathing down his neck but the Frenchman’s unfavourable road position as first man out kept any potential challenge on ice for the time being. Mikkelsen thought he had survived with his lead intact going in to the final day of competition only for Neuville to produce a scintillating drive – described by the man himself as one his best ever – on the stage 18, leapfrogging both Polos in a stroke. With the trio’s nearest challenger Østberg 53.4sec off the pace in fourth after a frustrating day blighted by punctures and gearbox issues, the destination of the three podium places looked to be a nailed on certainty. The order in which they would fall was about to be decided on the third and final day of competition.
Just three stages would decide the outcome of Rally Sweden 2015 on Sunday; three stages in which the slightest technical hiccup or loss of concentration could turn out to be pivotal. And so it proved. Leader Neuville was barely metres in to the first test when his on-board intercom began to fail, leaving him unable to clearly decipher co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul’s pace-notes and causing the i20 to momentarily veer in to a snow bank. The 6.6secs dropped here saw Mikkelsen nudge back ahead and crucially within two stages of a maiden victory in WRC. Ogier went quickest on the penultimate stage but not by a margin wide enough to overhaul his young teammate. With Neuville’s intercom problems resolved, the top three entered the final stage shootout, one of the most hotly anticipated in recent years, with just 4.6secs separating them.
Ogier was first through the event-closing power stage, with three bonus point as well as the rally win at stake. Neuville was unable to better the Frenchman’s time, leaving just Mikkelsen to run. With just one section to go, Mikkelsen’s split times were green. However, without the benefit of on-board timing information under new regulations this season, the Norwegian was unaware of his position relative to that of his main rivals and continued to push. This, in the end, proved his undoing as his Polo R strayed too close to a snow drift in the closing kilometres, costing him precious seconds and ultimately his first ever taste of WRC glory.
The heartbreak for Mikkelsen was palpable and only slightly tempered by securing third spot behind Ogier and Neuville. Further back, there was no sign of Østberg’s Citroën in fourth after he had embedded his DS3 in to a bank on Sunday morning and failed to climb back in to the points. Ott Tanäk took his place with another stellar showing for M-Sport ahead of Paddon in a career-best fifth overall. The two Brits Evans and Meeke engaged in a battle for the minor points on stage 21 and it was the former who held off his Northern Irish rival’s concerted attack to retain sixth.
In the championship, Ogier’s maximum haul extends his advantage to 23 points over Neuville who climbs to second, level with Mikkelsen. Latvala was the big loser, however, plummeting to fourth after drawing a blank on what is traditionally one of his strongest events. He sits a full 34 points adrift of the defending champion heading in to round 3 in Mexico which gets underway on the 5th March.
Rally Sweden 2015 – Final Results
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