Volkswagen’s Jari-Matti Latvala ended Sébastien Ogier’s run of five consecutive WRC wins stretching back to Australia last year by taking victory on the 62nd edition of Rally Sweden. In doing so he also usurped his teammate to move to the top of the world championship standings.
The Finn has previous experience of tasting the champagne in Sweden, having claimed top spot twice before in 2008 and 2012, and this latest triumph represents the 28-year old’s first ever hat-trick of wins on the same event. It was a rally of milestones for Latvala, who also clocked up his 300th career WRC stage win on his way to the podium.
The top of the leader board was locked out by Volkswagen, however the man occupying second spot on the podium was not defending world champion Sébastien Ogier but young Norwegian star Andreas Mikkelsen. The 24-year old, who had never finished in the top three before, drove superbly throughout and twice led the rally during what was an absorbing battle with his fellow Polo drivers. Only a mistake on the final leg dropped him out of contention for the win which, on another day, could so easily have been his. Rounding out the top three was another Norwegian, Citroën’s Mads Østberg, who kept out of trouble to secure the French team’s second third place finish of the season.
The only true winter event on the calendar, Rally Sweden presented the drivers with a unique set of challenges and hazards to get to grips with. Huge roadside snow banks were a constant threat, with any car venturing too close literally being sucked in to its doom and the thin layer of sheet ice lurking just below the snowy road surface made studded winter tyres an absolute must for all crews.
Thursday’s opening leg was dominated by the VW trio of Ogier, Mikkelsen and Latvala. Whilst the latter initially struggled to match his teammates’ blistering times, Ogier and Mikkelson traded the lead on three occasions with the Frenchman ending the day in front as his young colleague conceded several seconds in order to start day two on fresh tyres. The closest challenge to the Polos came from an unlikely source. Ott Tanak, returning to WRC after more than a year away, produced a stunning display on day one, winning stage 5 and guiding his privateer Fiesta RS to fourth place by the evening. The Estonian found himself just 2.6 seconds behind Latvala and clear of Østberg and Hirvonen in fifth and sixth.
However, in the space of a few hours on a dramatic Friday morning, the whole field was shaken up as Rally Sweden began to claim its first casualties. Firstly, the unthinkable happened. Overnight leader Sébastien Ogier was keen to push home his advantage but a rare driver error from the usually unflappable world champion caused him to miss-judge the entry to a corner and burry his Polo R in to a snow bank on the opening test. Four minutes 30 seconds were lost as Ogier, co-driver Julien Ingrassia and groups of spectators excavated the car from its icy tomb, leaving his hopes of back to back victories in Sweden in tatters.
The news of Ogier plummeting down the leader board meant that, for the first time in months, there would almost certainly be a new face on top of the podium. At first, Mikkelsen appeared to be that man, however two stages later he too made a mistake, sliding in to a ditch and filling the front of his car with snow. Although only a few seconds were lost, the slip-up was enough to allow Latvala to capitalise and move in to the lead. Nonetheless, the young Norwegian didn’t give up the ghost and with Latvala’s tyres deteriorating fast, Mikkelsen was able to close the gap to just 3.6 seconds by the end of day two.
Meanwhile, Mads Østberg moved up to third place, passing the fading Tanak and edging clear of M-Sport’s Mikko Hirvonen in fourth. It was not such good news all round though, as three other big hitters all saw their hopes dashed on day two. Robert Kubica planted his Fiesta RS in to a snow bank twice in three stages, losing a total of 20 minutes in the process. 24th position in the final classification was the best he could muster. After a disastrous double retirement in Monte Carlo, Hyundai’s misery continued as both Thierry Neuville and Juho Hänninen hit trouble in Sweden. First, Neuville collided with a rock on stage 8, wrecking the front right suspension of his i20. After 25 minutes worth of roadside repairs the Belgian attempted to continue but by stage 9 it was evident that the damage was too great, forcing him to retire the car. Then, in a bizarre repeat of the unwelcome double whammy suffered in Monte Carlo, number two driver Hänninen also pulled out when he completely sheared off the front right wheel of his car. It would be unfair to compare this season’s WRC rookies to the unprecedented success enjoyed by Volkswagen in their debut campaign last year; however the team and its drivers will have to learn to adapt quickly or risk being cast adrift in the championship.
So, moving in to the final day of competition it was a straight VW shootout for the trophy. Latvala was first to show his hand by winning Saturday’s opener but he would not have to push any harder thereafter. Desperate to keep in touch with his teammate, Mikkelsen threw caution to the wind on stage 18 but became yet another victim of the notorious snow banks. This incident proved more serious than his narrow escape in the ditch the previous day and the 25 seconds lost recovering the car all but sealed victory for Latvala. Nonetheless, the youngster was able to hold off a late challenge from Østberg and was delighted to secure the best ever finish of his fledgling WRC career.
Further back, Mikko Hirvonen was content with fourth overall despite not being able to match the pace of Østberg and Ott Tanak capped a remarkable return to WRC competition with fifth place. Sébastien Ogier recovered from his dramas in consummate style by salvaging an unlikely sixth overall but will have to concede the championship lead to Latvala for the time being at least. The British duo of Kris Meeke and Elfyn Evans each had difficult rallies. Northern Irishman Meeke was running sixth when an off on the final loop of stages cost him 7 minutes and ended up with just a solitary point in tenth. Meanwhile, Evans failed to finish after rolling on the final stage.
In terms of the drivers’ standings, Latvala now commands a five point lead over Ogier after the opening two rallies of the season, with top placed Citroën pilot Mads Østberg a further five behind in third. Round three on the WRC 2014 calendar marks a drastic change of scenery, as the teams head off to tackle the dry dirt tracks and desolate Sierras of Mexico on 6th of March.