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Ice Maiden – Latvala Gives Toyota First Win Since 1999 at Rally Sweden

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A seventeenth career victory and a fourth Rally Sweden trophy for Jari-Matti Latvala secured Toyota its first World Rally triumph in over seventeen years at Rally Sweden 2017. The Finn led the way on the season’s only true snow-surface event following the retirement of previous front-runner Thierry Neuville late on Saturday evening.

M-sport maintained its strong start to the season with two Fiesta RS drivers making it on to the podium. Second place Ott Tänak was followed home by four-time world champion Sébatien Ogier.

First run in 1950 and characterised by its sweeping snowdrifts and frozen tundra landscape, Rally Sweden 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 current world champion Sébastien Ogier has repeated that feat, in 2013, 2015 and 2016. 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.

After Friday’s action, the smart money was on a third man to break the Scandinavian stranglehold in Sweden. Hyundai’s Belgian ace Thierry Neuville started the season impressively by leading the way for much of Rallye Monte Carlo. His hopes of victory on round one were scuppered by retirement on the penultimate day; nevertheless with all four wheels on the road, the 28-year old seemed like the man to beat.

The same was true on day one in the frozen forests of Sweden. Neuville ended the longest leg of the rally with a 28.1 second advantage over closest persuader Latvala who hounded the Hyundai man all day long. After Neuville had taken the first two fastest times, three-time Rally Sweden victor Latvala bit back to lead by midday service. Conditions on the afternoon loop, however, played into the hands of the Belgian. Tearing through the freshly cleared tracks, Neuville registered a trio of stage wins as night drew in over the Norway-Sweden borderlands. The most decisive of these came when he bested Latvala by a commanding 18 seconds on stage 7.

An impromptu gearbox replacement was the only blemish on an otherwise stellar day for leading M-Sport pilot Ott Tänak . The only man besides Latvala and Neuville with a stage win to his name, the Estonian’s Fiesta developed gearshift problems on stage 4 but an alteration at midday service soon nipped those gremlins in the bud. The rejuvenated Tänak  slipped past Citroën’s Kris Meeke on the final stage to end the day third after the latter suffered a brief off-road moment. Just 2.1 seconds stood between the pair. Meanwhile, road-opener and championship leader Sébastien Ogier languished down in fifth following a day-long struggle ploughing his own Ford Fiesta RS through the virgin snow.

Hayden Paddon, happier after set-up tweaks at midday service, headed i20 teammate Dani Sordo in sixth. The Spaniard overran a hairpin in the morning to leave himself playing catch-up, but did steer clear of any major scrapes, something that couldn’t be said of Craig Breen or Elfyn Evans. Irishman Breen would’ve hoped for better on his first competitive start in the new C3 WRC, but ended Friday down in eighth after planting his new machinery into a snowbank on two separate occasions. Evans, meanwhile, lost more than 90 seconds with a puncture but did fare better than Toyota number two Juha Hänninen. The Finn retired his Yaris with a damaged radiator after colliding with a tree.

Overnight snow left grip at a premium on Saturday. Under the new rules this season the championship leader no longer opens the road on day two, a significant bonus for current incumbent  Sébastien Ogier. Freed from ploughing a furrow through the white stuff, the French ace wasted no time in overhauling Meeke’s C3 and had secured fourth by the end of Saturday morning. As it turned out, losing a place to the world champion was the least of the Irishman’s problems. Sat comfortably in fifth, the Citroën team leader planted his C3 into a snow bank on the day’s penultimate test. Eight minutes had passed before spectators could prize the car free from its icy tomb, cold comfort for Meeke who nose-dived off the leaderboard.

Meeke’s loss was Sordo’s gain. The Spaniard shuffled up a place to fifth with the unfortunate Ulsterman’s young teammate Craig Breen hot on the heels of the Spaniard. Elfyn Evans and Haydon Paddon occupied seventh and eighth respectively with the latter dogged by faulty power steering all morning.

However, the real drama was to play out amongst the podium contenders. Sailing serenely towards his third career WRC victory, Neuville had just gone fastest on the 14 km rerun of Vargåsen when a moment of madness saw him shoot off the road on the special stage at the spectator-filled Karlstad trotting track. The Belgian’s second retirement from the lead in as many rallies promoted a surprised Jari-Matti Latvala to top-spot, albeit with only a slender 3.8sec advantage over an inspired Ott Tänak.

Despite heading the pack, the omens weren’t great for the Scandinavian, who last tasted the champagne of victory almost a year ago in Mexico. With Tänak buoyed by a quartet of fastest times on Saturday, the M-Sport man was highly fancied in the paddock to bag his first career win at WRC level. However, his wait was destined to go on, as Latvala hit the snow-covered ground running on Sunday morning. With the Yaris in fine-fettle, he won all three tests, including a maximum points haul on the event-closing power stage to extend the eventual winning margin to 29.2secs.

For his part, Tänak blamed the rather anticlimactic final-day dual on handling issues in his Fiesta RS.  Seven seconds conceded in the opening stage on Sunday was enough to persuade the Estonian to throttle back and defend what he had. This he did successfully, matching his career-best WRC result.

Elsewhere, a spin for Ogier on stage 16 vanquished any hopes of an unlikely victory push. The defending champion finished 30.3secs behind Tänak and loses grip on the lead of the drivers’ champion for the first time since February 2014. Fourth was Sordo, the 21st time the Spaniard has narrowly missed out on the podium in his lengthy career. Craig Breen’s debut in the new Citroën C3 should be considered mission accomplished. Despite a frustrating run on Friday, he secured an impressive sixth thanks to some consistent driving thereafter.

Elfyn Evans looked in danger of losing his grip on sixth after a misfiring engine cost him over a minute on stage 16. Fortunately for the Welshman, running repairs on the liaison section put paid to the problem and he eventually led home Hyundai’s Hayden Paddon by a slim 4.6sec margin. Meanwhile, Neuville and Meeke were both left ruing their luck in 12th and 13th respectively, with only a handful of power stage points to show between them.

Next up, get ready for a dramatic change of scenery as the WRC bandwagon rolls onto the scorching dirt roads around Léon for Rally Guanajuato Mexico. The fun in the sun runs from the 9th – 12th March.

Final Results: Round 2 – Rally Sweden

Pos Car No. Driver…………. Co-driver Team Points Time Diff Prev Diff 1st
1. 10 FINJ. LATVALA FINM. ANTTILA TOY 25+5 2:36:03.6
2. 2 ESTO. TANAK ESTM. JARVEOJA M-SP 18 2:36:32.8 +29.2 +29.2
3. 1 FRAS. OGIER FRAJ. INGRASSIA M-SP 15+4 2:37:03.1 +30.3 +59.5
4. 6 ESPD. SORDO ESPM. MARTI HYU 12 2:38:15.1 +1:12.0 +2:11.5
5. 8 IRLC. BREEN GBRS. MARTIN CIT 10 2:38:54.8 +39.7 +2:51.2
6. 3 GBRE. EVANS GBRD. BARRITT M-SP 8 2:41:30.2 +2:35.4 +5:26.6
7. 4 NZLH. PADDON NZLJ. KENNARD HYU 6+1 2:41:34.8 +4.6 +5:31.2

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