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Hyundai Team Takes Sixth Straight Podium in Rally Sweden

2020-02-24

With a podium finish in the WRC 2020’s 2nd round, the Hyundai World Rally Team has now recorded six straight podium finishes in Sweden (2015-2020), again proving the versatility of the i20 Coupe WRC rally car in all terrains.

Rally Sweden is above all known for the snow: the race cars there must wade through the roads across the snowy forests that straddle the deep winters of Sweden and Norway. Ironically, this snowy race is one of WRC’s fastest rallies, because studded tires can make the cars move effectively through the snow.

But the snowy and the icy terrain demands quality not only in race cars but also in drivers—extensive experience in rough terrain matters, which is the reason why Rally Sweden, along with Rally Finland, traditionally produced winners from Northern Europe. Since 1973, the year of the rally’s establishment, only three drivers outside the region won Rally Sweden: Hyundai’s veteran Sebastien Loeb (2004) and Toyota’s Sebastien Ogier (2013, 2015, and 2016), and the current Hyundai ace Theirry Neville (2018). Even amongst the Northern European drivers, Hyundai’s Ott Tanak, hailing from Estonia, is the only one to have been born outside of the three Nordic countries.

Unusually gentle climate resulted in a massively shrunk course

The winter this year was unusually warm in Värmland, Sweden, with massive ramifications for the rally’s course. With road conditions in the courses intended for Saturday stages all judged as unsuitable, the original plan for an 18-stage course, spanning approx. 300 km, was shrunk to a 10-stage one spanning 170 km: a massive 43% reduction in course length. The drivers were now to complete four stages each on Friday and Saturday and divide the remaining two stages across the Sunday morning and afternoon.

Even with the adjustments, the course proved to be very difficult; the drivers had to run the unpaved roads with melting snow on studded tires. Studded tires are highly effective on snowy or icy terrain but, once the snow is gone, do not give a good grip on exposed unpaved roads. With the mounds of intermittent snow and ice added, the course made it difficult for drivers to achieve any consistency in their routine.

Moments of tense preparations in the service park before the rally’s opening. The shortened schedule made every stage count.

The Hyundai Team’s starting roster in Sweden was Thierry Neuville, Ott Tanak, and Craig Breen. Having gotten off to a great start with the first round’s victory, Neuville was eyeing his third consecutive rally win; with a win in Rally Spain in 2019 and a win this year in Monte Carlo, Neuville was on a two-rally streak across the two WRC seasons (excluding, of course, the canceled Australian rally in 2019).

Though he suffered an unfortunate accident and retired in Monte Carlo, Ott Tanak was also expected to be among the leading group; the Estonian-born driver had won the Swedish rally last year. The third and the final seat of the i20 Coupe WRC rally car was occupied by Craig Breen. Having entered only two rounds since joining the team last year, Breen was given another chance to showcase his ability.

The schedule began with a Thursday shakedown. Driving through the unpaved roads without snow, the teams had a short time to figure the perfect vehicle settings for the upcoming rally. The standout of the first shakedown was the Toyota Team’s rookie Kalle Rovanpera. Debuting to WRC this year at the meager age of 19, the surprise Toyota recruit shocked the world by finishing fifth in his first shot at the top tier competition in Monte Carlo.

Countless motorsport fans gathered in Karlstad to enjoy the opening ceremony and the shakedown run

The second shakedown took place in Karlstad, a 1.9 km course renovated from an old sports arena, after the opening ceremony there. The festivities had a surprise guest: Prince Carl Philip of Sweden, well-known for his motorsport fandom. Prince Philip once participated in the Porsche Carrera Cup Scandinavia as well as the STCC (Scandinavian Touring Car Championship); his dedication to the sport is such that during his visit to South Korea in 2013, he even went out of his way to visit the F1 races.

For added fun, Prince Philip took the co-driver seat to Sebastien Ogier’s car during the shakedown. It was a short course, but Ogier did come in second and apparently quipped to the prince, “I’m thinking about changing my co-driver permanently—what’s your weekend schedule, majesty?” The prince was as witty as Ogier in return: “I’m free,” he said, capping the festivities with the laughter from the crowd.

During the shakedown, Prince Carl Philip of Sweden made a surprise appearance in the co-driver seat to Sebastien Ogier’s car (photo credits to WRC.com)

The rally formally began on Friday. Due to the condensed schedule, the stages were restructured to four courses straddling the Norwegian-Swedish border. The road order (i.e. the order of start) was set according to the driver championship table, with Neuville, Ogier, and Evans beginning the race in that order.

The chilly Thursday night had forecasted an icy road surface to the weekend, and indeed, Neuville had the disadvantage of having to run through a profuse amount of pebbles on the road, effectively cleaning it up for his competitors. With this disadvantage in play, he gradually sank in the race and finished the day in 6th, 23.6 seconds behind first. Given the condensed schedule and thus a relative lack of upset opportunities, this difference seemed already insurmountable. Tanak, though, started fast; in the second stage, he recorded his first stage win in Hyundai uniform and zeroed in on the first-place finish. He also won the fourth stage, but the tally at the end of the day had him 8.5 seconds behind first in second place.

The unexpectedly warm weather meant that the drivers often had to use studded tires on dirt roads

The Saturday schedule subjected the drivers to the same course as the Friday’s—the teams were busy figuring the improvements to the vehicle settings given yesterday’s experience. There was a bit of snow on Friday night, but the rising temperature in the morning meant that a different road condition again would face the drivers that day. Tanak persistently maintained his runner-up position throughout, and Neuville stayed in 6th. Breen came in 7th.

The Power Stage had yesterday’s rain pooled in much of the road, which became yet another variable to the race

The Saturday night had heavy rains, which led to the cancelation of one of the two scheduled stages. The Power Stage, spanning 21.19 km, was the only stage left to play. At that point, Tanak was 17.2 seconds behind first in second place, and Neuville was 39.2 seconds behind first in sixth place; with just one stage left, the difference seemed too large to overcome. If any consolation, Tanak had a sizeable lead over the third-place Ogier by 11.6 seconds, making that upset unlikely as well. But with the additional points from the Power Stage at stake, the tensions did not disappear from the drivers’ faces.

Ott Tanak and co-driver Martin Jarveoja came in second in Rally Sweden.

Neuville and Tanak finished second and fourth respectively in the Power Stage, securing 4 and 2 points each. With a large lead already in hand, Evans played it safe and rolled to the first-place finish, leaving Tanak 12.7 seconds behind and winning the second WRC rally of his career as well as his first since joining the Toyota Team. It was a defining statement by Evans that he needed no adjustment period to get used to his new vehicle, and a foreshadowing of the intense rivalry-to-come with the Hyundai Team aces.

With the condensed rally schedule, Tanak ran out of time for the potential upset and finished in second. The 19-year old phenom Kalle Rovanpera continued his astonishing rise to the top, recording the fastest time in the Power Stage with five points added and ultimately finishing in third overall—ahead of his teammate and rally legend Sebastien Ogier. With that, he also became the youngest podium finisher (19 years) in the sport history.

Neuville finished 6th, failing to deliver three consecutive rally wins. But thanks to Tanak’s second-place finish, the Hyundai Team maintained its own six-year streak of podium finishes in Rally Sweden.

The success of the Toyota Team in Sweden led to changes in the championship tables. With 40 points added to the team’s tally in Sweden (first and third place), Toyota leapfrogged the Hyundai Team to lead the manufacturer championship. With his first-place finish, Evans added 25 points to his own tally and took the co-lead in the driver championship at 42 points. Neuville added 8 points from his sixth-place finish and 4 points from the Power Stage to score 42 points in total, tying Evans in first.

Ott Tanak took the podium and continued the Hyundai Team’s six-year streak of podium finishes in Sweden

Despite having no drivers from Northern Europe before Tanak, the Hyundai Team had consistently placed its drivers on the podiums of Rally Sweden. The continued success of the team in Sweden’s snowy and icy terrain is a testament to the versatility of the i20 Coupe WRC Rally Car.

The next round to the 2020 WRC takes place in Mexico. Opening on Mar. 12, Rally Mexico features the season’s first unpaved gravel roads, a symbolic start to the season’s stretch run. The rally will feature conditions quite different from those of Rally Sweden; with high altitude and low oxygen, the output of the engine is reduced, and relatively high temperatures often cause troubles to the engines overburdened by the heat. With the rivalry with the Toyota Team increasingly taking shape, the Hyundai Team and the i20 Coupe WRC rally car will have to step up their games in Rally Mexico.