After the WRC 2023 season opener in Monte Carlo, racers converged on the second week of February to Umeå in northeast Sweden to tackle the season’s only snow rally across snow-covered stages in Scandinavia. The reason the Rallye Sweden moved its base from south-central to Umeå last year is due to extreme weather. Rising temperatures have melted the snow on the stages, making them impossible to operate in the past few years. Studded tires mainly used in Sweden (tires for snow/ice with metal spikes) quickly take damage on unsnowy roads. Due to this, in 2020, the race was held only in the 169.74km-long section (1 to 10 SS) repeating only 5 stages over 3 days.
Located 600 km north of the capital Stockholm, Umeå is the largest city in northern Sweden and is known as a university town. Because it is close to the North Pole, the snow will not melt, and the corners are not complicated, so race cars can accelerate freely. The average speed of 121.52 km/h, set by last year’s winner Kalle Rovanperä, was the second fastest in Swedish Rally history. On the other hand, drivers who toured the course said they were less interested in too many straight roads.
Hyundai Motorsport, Toyota, and M-Sport Ford competing in Rally 1 had a different driver lineup from the opening race. First, Hyundai put Thierry Neuville, Esapekka Lappi, and Craig Breen on their entry list. Despite struggling early in the opening race, Neuville fiercely followed the lead and eventually finished on the podium in 3rd place. (Neuville had once won a championship in Sweden in 1998.) However, he had to give up pre-tests because of the flu and didn’t recover until just before the race.
Lappi, who became a new member of the Hyundai team this year, has shown good performance in the snow as a driver from Finland, a neighboring country of Sweden. Last year he placed third, and in 2019 he finished second. However, he hasn’t been used to his race car – the i20 N Rally 1. This result is important to regain his confidence, at least. And for that, his teammates also competed in the Kuopio-ralli in Finland a week before the Swedish race. Of course, securing the setting data was also important.
With testing days reduced from 30 to 21, strong teams are dealing with this issue by competing in small rallies. Team Hyundai’s Lappi and Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta competed at the Finland Kuopio Rally, while M-Sport Ford’s Ott Tänak competed at the Otepää Talveralli in Estonia to collect data and practice.
Hyundai Team’s third car was given to the Irish Craig Breen. This is his first season since he moved to M-Sport Ford and returned after a year. He hasn’t been used to many things yet – his new car, and his co-driver James Fulton, who joined at the end of last season. Still, he finished second in Sweden in 2018 and has experience with Hyundai for three seasons (2019-2021), so many expect him to adapt quickly.
Toyota brought four Yaris cars this time as well. With Sébastien Ogier out, Rovanpera, Elfyn Evans and Katsuta will score for the team. On top of that, last year’s champion and Swedish champion Rovanpera and 2020 Swedish champion Evans were set to make an even stronger team; Evans, however, has not been on the podium since Belgium last year.
Toyota borrowed their Yaris rally car to a driver other than their teammates – to Lorenzo Bertelli, who so far drove an M-Sport Ford. The successor to the Prada Group, Bertelli debuted as a rally driver in 2010 and won the WRC2 class in Italy in 2014.
M-Sport Ford fielded two drivers, Ott Tanak and Pierre-Louis Loubet. Tanak has so far been on the podium three times in Sweden. Loubet, on the other hand, doesn’t have much experience in the snow. This race was special because it was the opening race of the support series WRC3. WRC3 – a private rally of WRC2 until 2021, now a subclass of it – has become a rally that serves as an incubator for drivers – once the JWRC’s job. Still, considering its upper class, it uses a 4WD rally car (previously they used front-wheel drive cars). Currently, it is only the Ford Fiesta, but Renault is also preparing a new car for this.
At 7pm on Thursday, February 9th, Umeå was completely immersed in darkness, but the SS1 (Umeå Sprint) stage, announcing the start of Rally Sweden, was buzzing with rally cars and enthusiasm from the crowd. On the 5.16km-long course, not short for a special stage in the city skirt, a frozen ice wall intimidating; In fact, Neuville, Tanak, Lappi, and Evans collided with this wall and their aerodynamic parts were damaged. On day one, Rovanpera took the lead, followed by Tanak, Evans, Lappi, Neuville, Katsuta, Breen and Loubet.
On Friday 10th February the drivers finished the day in the Umeå sprint they had the day before, after repeating three stages in the morning and afternoon, including a 30-minute lunch service. The seven stages from SS2 to SS8 were 106.76km-long in total. The 25.81km-long Botsmark (SS4/SS7), the longest of Friday’s courses, is a completely new stage, also in darkness in the second time.
It was Hyundai’s Breen who won Friday’s opening stage (SS2). Even with a slow start, Breen kept up a pace that made it hard to believe he was getting used to his rally car, and quickly moved up to second overall. Lappi was also on good pace to finish third overall. Rovanpera and Katsuta shared their victories in SS3 and SS4. In the afternoon, Breen again posted a top-two time on SS5 and SS6, pushing out Tanak to emerge as the overall leader. Katsuta’s car, which showed good pace in the morning, was rolled over scratching the snow wall in SS5 and retired.
On Friday, Breen finished the day in the lead. After the race, a hearing was called for starting the engine (race cars must be in EV mode) in the Parc ferme (race car storage area), but escaped harsh punishment and kept the lead. Tanak also chased hard. After conquering SS7, Tanak squeezed the time difference down to 2.6 seconds from 10.7 seconds. Breen, who returned to Hyundai from M-Sport, and Tanak, the opposite, continued a fierce battle for the lead. Lappi was third overall, 8.6 seconds behind Tanak. Evans, Rovanpera, Neuville, Loubet, Oliver Solberg, Sami Pajari and Jari Huttunen were ranked 4th to 10th. Neuville, now in better shape, struggled with understeer all Friday and struggled with a damaged bumper, but maintained a close lead of 5.7 seconds from Rovanpera.
So was Saturday, February 11th; After repeating three stages, the drivers went through seven 126.22km-long SSs near the city center. The opening stages, Norrby and Floda, were completely new. Floda, SS10 and SS13, is 28.25km long, the longest in this race. The final SS15 (Umeå) was made by extending the first day’s sprint course to 10.08km. Tire supplier Pirelli expected the result to be decided on Saturday. They also predicted that the complex road conditions, with snow dug up in the afternoon, exposing gravel and dirt, could damage the tires.
On Saturday’s opening, Neuville showed signs of recovery by marking the top. But still nobody knew who would take the lead; The gap between Breen and Tanak was only about 5 seconds. By afternoon things were not doing great for Hyundai. First of all, on SS13, Lappi’s car was buried in snow and wasted time. With the help of the spectators, he turned the car around, but lost 7 minutes, which slimmed down his chances of standing on the podium. But Rovanpera spun on SS13 and allowed Neuville to get closer.
Breen’s car suffered a flat left tire and hybrid system anomaly, allowing Tanak to takeover. This moved Tanak to the top at the end of Saturday. Breen was second by 8.6 seconds and, surprisingly, Neuville was third. He struggled with poor conditions at the start of the race, but steadily picked up the pace with few mistakes. As a result, he took three stages (SS9, SS13, SS14) on Saturday and pushed Rovanpera by 3.8 seconds. Rovanpera, Evans, and Loubet took 4th to 6th places, followed by WRC2 drivers led by Solberg.
Immediately after the race, drivers complained of tire delamination and damaged studs. Lappi, Breen and Tanak also had similar problems. Tire supplier Pirelli blamed the problem on rough road surfaces revealed with snow dug up, teams setting air pressures too low, and high-speed courses.
On Sunday, February 12, the drivers repeated only three stages. After two iterations of the opening Västervik stage, they competed for a final winner on Saturday’s final stage, Umeå. The power stage was near the city center, so many people visited it. The three stages were short with a total length of 64.03 km, but the competition for the lead was fiercer than ever. Tanak, who was at the front, had an 8.6 second gap with Breen, and only 3.8 seconds between Neuville and Rovanpera. A slow puncture of a tire or even a minor mistake could change the result.
On Sunday, the winner of the opening stage was Rovanpera. Tanak moved one step closer to winning by finishing second, widening his gap to Breen to 11.6 seconds. On the repeat SS17, Neuville marked the top, Breen finished second, and Hyundai attempted a takeover. Tanak and Breen now have a time difference of 8.5 seconds, and Neuville also secured third place by 7.1 seconds over Rovanpera, who had closely followed him by 1.1 seconds. Now only the final SS18, which is also a power stage, remains. Evans, Rovanpera, Tanak and Breen split the points while Esapekka Lappi, who saved his tires, finished top and collected five points.
M-Sport Ford’s Tanak won the trophy at Rally Sweden. Since 2019, when he was champion, it’s been a while since he scored the most. However, the Hyundai team achieved a double podium with Breen in 2nd and Neuville in 3rd. Unfortunately, Breen, who missed the championship, quickly adapted to his new car and looked forward to his future performance. Neuville also quickly overcame his early struggles and succeeded in taking the last place on the podium. For reference, Neuville also managed to retain 3rd place in the championship by adding 15 drivers’ points.
Rovanpera, who pursued Neuville until the end, did not show the same performance as last year and marked 4th place. Evans also finished fifth, and Toyota failed to stand on the podium. Loubet lost nearly a minute on the final stage due to smoke in his car, but managed to finish in 6th place, while Lappi finished in 7th place. In terms of team points, the Hyundai team added 39 points, narrowing the gap with Toyota, the leader, to 14 points.
In WRC2, Solberg, who placed 7th overall, took the lead, followed by Ole-Christian Veiby, Pazari and Nikolay Gryazin. Meanwhile, WRC3, the opening race of the season, was conquered by Roope Korhonen. Now drivers will cross the ocean and compete on the season’s first gravel course, March 16-19 – the Rally Mexico, which has been suspended for the past two years due to Covid-19. The thin air at 2,700m above sea level, rough gravel roads and sweltering heat will test the durability of the race cars and the patience of the drivers.
By Sujin Lee, automobile critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. After becoming an editor and the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉 and 〈Car Vision〉, I have started a new career as an auto critic. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.