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WRC Rally Sweden

WRC Sweden: The Good, The Bad and a title race teaser

The blue touch paper for this year's World Rally Championship title battle has been lit after M-Sport’s Ott Tanak took victory in a Rally Sweden classic. Autosport reviews the highs, lows, turning points, close calls and heartbreak from the year's only snow rally

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Top Performer - Ott Tanak and Martin Jarveoja 

No matter what the discipline, the best drivers are those who can conjure a victory while driving cars that are not the fastest. Ott Tanak is most definitely one of those drivers, as he again proved with his run to victory in Sweden.

The M-Sport Ford Puma wasn’t the quickest on the Swedish snow but Tanak was able to coax enough from it to score an 18th career WRC win. The result puts him level in the all-time WRC winners stakes with the late Hannu Mikkola and current Toyota WRC boss Jari-Matti Latvala. 

It was a masterclass in maintaining a strong average speed, as the 2019 world champion netted only one stage win from the 18 tests on his way to a first win in his second spell at the Ford squad. This was the latest example of Tanak outperforming his car, following on from a similar showing in Finland last year when he carried his Hyundai to the top step of the podium and denied world champion Kalle Rovanpera on home soil.

Ott Tänak celebrates victory with his customary podium leap

Ott Tänak celebrates victory with his customary podium leap

Photo by: M-Sport

Tanak wasn’t overly happy with his Puma throughout the rally, but the Estonian is a perfectionist. His determination to battle for another world title is ever-present, and M-Sport is attempting to meet his demands.

There were elements of fortune in the run to the victory. Nearest rival Craig Breen suffering a lack of hybrid certainly helped swing the battle in his favour, while Tanak was also fortunate to survive a front left puncture on Stage 14. Hyundai’s decision to deploy team orders also cooled off the intense head-to-head before the final stage, allowed the 35-year-old to cruise to a 18.7s win over Breen.

But Tanak’s drive was faultless, reminding the WRC that there will be three teams in the fight for the championship this year.   

PLUS: How the WRC title fight ignited in Sweden's winter wonderland

Craig Breen was back to his very best on his first outing with Hyundai this year

Craig Breen was back to his very best on his first outing with Hyundai this year

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Honourable mentions: Craig Breen/James Fulton, Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe, Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen and Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson 

Last year was effectively a write off for Breen. There were flickers of potential with podiums in Monte Carlo and Sardinia but largely the narrative was a series of confidence-sapping crashes and retirements. But in Sweden we saw a rejuvenated Breen, now driving a partial campaign for Hyundai, produce arguably his best showing in a top-level WRC car in his first outing of the season. 

The Irishman quickly gelled with the Hyundai i20 N to go toe-to-toe with M-Sport’s Tanak for victory. Breen scored four stages wins and led the rally from Friday afternoon to Saturday evening before his pace was hampered by a hybrid issue. A sixth career second place finish was richly deserved.

While Breen overshadowed his Hyundai team-mates, Thierry Neuville impressed after starting the weekend on the back foot. Illness prevented the Belgian from taking part in one of his pre-event tests, which meant he had to rely on his team-mates for set-up direction. On Friday he struggled, but a series of five stage wins helped him see off Rovanpera to secure a deserved podium. 

The only blemish arrived on the final stage when he ran wide at a tight left-hander, which wrecked Hyundai’s decision to check Breen in a minute late to elevate its full-time driver to second. 

Kalle Rovanpera claimed more stage wins than anyone but had to settle for fourth

Kalle Rovanpera claimed more stage wins than anyone but had to settle for fourth

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Rovanpera may not have been at his devastating best and while hampered by opening roads, the Finn still reeled off six stage wins. That was more than any other driver as he finished fourth, 25.1s behind winner Tanak.

Being first to tackle a second pass of the rutted stages proved to be his downfall as he was unable to match the speed of his rivals. But Rovanpera drove smartly, evidenced by a decision not to attack on the powerstage to ensure he headed to the next round in Mexico second behind Tanak in the championship to secure a better road position. 

Finally, after a difficult 2022 that ended with the loss of his WRC factory drive at Hyundai, Oliver Solberg showcased his talent by dominating a stacked WRC2 field to score an emotional win on home soil. 

M-Sport enjoy a first WRC win since 2022 Monte Carlo

M-Sport enjoy a first WRC win since 2022 Monte Carlo

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Team of the Week: M-Sport Ford

M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson said that the team's drought-breaking victory was mostly down to Tanak doing an “incredible job", but the Estonian still required equipment capable of delivering the win.

Apart from Sebastien Loeb’s magical win in Monte Carlo, M-Sport’s 2022 season was one littered with misfortune and crashes, but in Sweden the Ford squad showed it hadn’t forgotten how to prepare a car to win rallies. 

The Ford Puma may not have been the fastest on the stages but it was able to set a strong consistent average speed in the hands of Tanak, who is still acclimatising to his new car. His Puma ran reliably and a front-left puncture on Saturday was the only problem he had to overcome.

An emotional Malcolm Wilson celebrates M-Sport's first win since Monte Carlo 2022

An emotional Malcolm Wilson celebrates M-Sport's first win since Monte Carlo 2022

Photo by: M-Sport

Wilson openly admits the team has work to do to improve its Puma and ensure Tanak has a car capable of a serious crack at the 2023 world title, but Sweden showed the team has all the ingredients to take the fight to Toyota and Hyundai. 

“We know there is a lot of things we need to improve and we can do that but to get a result like that early on is great,” Wilson told Autosport.  

“It has been really difficult but I never lost the belief that these guys and girls and the Ford guys that we still had world beating car. Thankfully it has been proved again on this rally.”

It must be said after a trouncing by Toyota at Monte Carlo, Hyundai deserves recognition for its performance in Sweden to score a double podium with Breen second and Neuville third. Failed team orders bid aside, the i20 N netted 10 stage wins from the 18 tests.  New boss Cyril Abiteboul also displayed he is prepared to make big calls to win titles. 

Takamoto Katsuta and Aaron Johnston try to repair a leaking radiator on the #18 Toyota GR Yaris

Takamoto Katsuta and Aaron Johnston try to repair a leaking radiator on the #18 Toyota GR Yaris

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Moments of Heartbreak 

Sweden marked a milestone in Takamoto Katsuta’s rally career as this was his first event as a factory Toyota WRC driver, piloting the third GR Yaris.

The Japanese impressed in the opening stages to sit fifth, boosted by a fastest time on Stage 4. However, on the next test he misjudged a left-hander and rolled. Damage to the radiator forced him out of Friday’s action, while an engine issue prompted a second retirement on Sunday.

 

Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi found himself in the thick of podium fight until his rally unravelled on Stage 13. With the stage end in sight, Lappi’s front right tyre delaminated, firing him off the road and deep into a snowbank. 

 

Seven minutes were lost as a group of spectators managed to dig the i20 N out. Lappi went on to win the powerstage and recover to seventh overall. 

Lucky Escapes

Rovanpera has ridden his luck at times, but escaping a wild spin on Stage 13 has to be among his most fortunate. The world champion lost control of his GR Yaris at speed but his spinning Toyota slotted into a conveniently-placed access road, avoiding potential heavy time loss or possible retirement.  

 

Breen’s run to second also wasn’t without a little bit of good fortune on Stage 12. The Hyundai driver ran wide and ploughed through a snowbank before returning to the road. This occurred just moments before a tyre failure on Stage 13. 

Craig Breen and James Fulton escape a snowbank

Craig Breen and James Fulton escape a snowbank

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Saturday afternoon’s action featured three tyre failures in the space of two stages. While the delamination for Lappi proved costly, rally winner Tanak was lucky that his front-left punctured on a straight and not a corner.

The sudden tyre failure required Tanak to think quickly to stem the time loss from overshooting a junction that blemished a stunning run through Stage 14.    

Top Tweets

Sweden saw the return of Breen at his very best behind the wheel and in front of the television camera.

 

While the Irishman has become an internet sensation for his witty stage end interviews, he also showed the more serious side of the peaks and troughs and mental challenges top level sportspeople have to endure.

 

When it comes to spectacles in motorsport, Rally Sweden is up there with the very best. 

 

Oliver Solberg’s army of fans were out in full force to cheer on their countryman. This sign was put up on the Tuesday before the event. For those not fluent in Swedish, 'fart' translates to 'speed' in English. 

 

Hot Shots

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Pierre-Louis Loubet, Nicolas Gilsoul, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Pierre-Louis Loubet, Nicolas Gilsoul, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: M-Sport

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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