Round 2 of the World Rally Championship sees the World Rally Championship move north into the Vasterbotten region of Sweden, the only snow event on the WRC calendar and one of the fastest and most challenging. Coming into the event drivers were already talking up the possibility of this year’s Rally Sweden being the fastest WRC event ever run, due to the fast sweeping stages and the new Hybrid cars being quicker than anticipated. Speaking of which, the hybrid cars would face a real test of reliability in Sweden, the sub-zero temperatures being something that could have a drastic impact on how the Hybrid system would perform.
The first day of running on Friday immediately saw a blistering pace being set, but surprisingly by Hyundai’s Ott Tanak, the Estonian blitzed the first stage of the event. Tanak’s charge was short lived though, a hybrid system failure on stage 2 forced the 2019 champion out before his challenge for victory could gain any momentum. Ford frontman Craig Breen came to grief after crashing out on stage 2, but for a rather bizarre reason; the windscreen washer on his Ford Puma WRC was stuck on, spraying onto his windscreen but then freezing, blocking his vision and causing him to crash.
The lead on the opening day would change no less than 4 times, with Tanak opening up as the leader, swiftly followed by a game of high speed musical chairs as Elfyn Evans, Kalle Rovanperra, Esapekka Lappi & Thierry Neuville would all take turns to lead. Neuville very nearly came to grief at the very spot where Breen crashed out, nerfing the snowbank but luckily being able to carry on unscathed. Elfyn Evans led much of the afternoon, but Neuville would end day 1 as the leader after a stunning display of speed on Friday evening.
Saturday morning saw Neuville quickly dethroned as leader by Toyota’s young gun Kalle Rovanperra, which is how the rest of Saturday would go as the young Finn ran a blistering pace and did it consistently, giving him plenty of breathing room moving into the final day on Sunday. Elfyn Evans, Thierry Neuville and Esapekka Lappi duked it out behind for 2nd place; the trio were never far off the pace of the leading Rovanperra, but none could match the leaders consistency. By the end of the day, Evans had opened up a gap over 3rd placed Thierry Neuville, but his rally unwound quickly.
The final night stage on Saturday saw Evans cross the finish line…albeit after the Welshman in his Toyota Yaris GR ran wide, climbed over a snowbank and collided with a floodlight, plunging the end of the stage into darkness. The unorthodox finishing method, kind of like something off a viral Forza Horizon youtube race finish saw Evans handed a 10 second penalty for “not following the pre-defined route of the stage.” Unsurprisingly, Evans took that one on the chin. Ford’s Adrien Formaux meanwhile struggled with electric issues on the Saturday which dropped him down the running order.
Sunday dawned and it was a day of drama. Elfyn Evans, spurred into action following Saturday night’s excursion and his 10 second penalty ran a torrid pace in the day’s opening stage; which would ultimately see Evans demise. Evans crashed out, and once he got himself going again, it was game over as the hybrid system on the Toyota Yaris GR failed; another blow to Evans’ championship challenge. Kalle Rovanperra by this point had little to worry about, with a comfortable margin to the chasing Thierry Neuville, the young Finn ran a steady, consistent pace to clinch victory and to climb into the lead of the drivers championship. Thierry Neuville finished in 2nd, turning Hyundai’s luck around after a difficult Rally Monte Carlo. Esapekka Lappi finished 3rd, his best finish in over 2 years and a welcome return to form. Takamoto Katsuta scored a career best 4th place finish, albeit over a minute and a half adrift of Lappi. Oliver Solberg scored a career best WRC finish of 5th while Gus Greensmith finished 6th and was the first Ford to cross the line.
The next event will see another major change of scenery, with Rally Croatia hosting the WRC on 21st-24th April on the high speed, winding tarmac roads close to the capital, Zagreb.