As the FIA World Rally Championship’s (WRC) only true winter event, Rally Sweden offers a unique challenge. Snow-covered stages and studded tyres provide one of the most spectacular events of the year and – having traditionally performed well at the Swedish fixture – M-Sport has its sights firmly set on further success.
Based in the rally-rich heart of Värmland, the region has benefited from significant snow-fall of late, which could well signal the return of some classic winter rallying.
Provided the snow cover remains good, Rally Sweden might surprise. Whereas other loose-surface events deliver unpredictable grip-levels, traction on snow is relatively high. With temperatures well below zero, Michelin’s X-ICE NORTH 2 tyres bite through the snow to capture grip on the hard ice below – affecting a smooth ride at breath-taking speeds.
But should the stages be covered with soft snow and little ice, the studs tear up the road surface leaving little room for error – exposed gravel threatening to damage the steel-tips and resulting in a considerable loss of traction.
Of course it’s not just tyres which are adapted to cope with the cold climate. The Ford Fiesta RS WRCs are fitted with extra protection to guard against the studded tyres and there are a few driver comforts to ensure the crews can perform to the best of their ability. The cars are fitted with heaters and the drivers and co-drivers benefit from such little luxuries as heated boots and thicker soled shoes.
One driver who knows what it takes to overcome the challenges thrown up by this specialist event is Mikko Hirvonen. He and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen have contested the rally on ten previous occasions – making the podium no fewer than five times and winning the event with Ford and M-Sport in both 2010 and 2011. Their 2011 victory came on the Fiesta RS WRC’s maiden outing. In fact, the Fiesta claimed a clean-sweep of the podium that year – making it one of rallying’s most successful WRC debuts.
As one of Scandinavia’s most celebrated drivers, the art of winter rallying comes naturally to the Finn who first learnt to drive whilst sitting on his father’s knee on a frozen lake. Needless to say, Hirvonen’s season starts here and he will be looking towards a podium finish.
“We’ve just completed a really good test and I’m feeling good. We knew from past experience that the Fiesta [RS WRC] would be really strong in the high-speed sections, and it was great to see that I had that same good feeling straight away.
“Rally Sweden is extra fun when it’s really cold and there is a lot of snow – there’s nothing better than bouncing your car off the compacted snow banks at high speed. Although the region has had some good snow fall recently, there might not be much ice and that could be tricky. It means that there will be a lot of gravel coming through the snow which makes tyre management really important.
“I’ve won this rally twice before, but I wouldn’t say that there was much of a secret to doing well here. It used to favour the Scandinavians, but I think last year proved that that is no longer the case and anyone can be quick here.
“The main thing to remember is to really commit to the stages. Especially in the high-speed sections, you need the confidence to go flat-out. It’s one of those events where a driver needs to really attack, but in the narrow sections you also have to be very precise. There’s a very narrow line that forms, and if you venture off that line you can easily find yourself in trouble.”
“I really hope that we can get back to our best next week and be challenging for the top positions. Monte-Carlo was a really tricky event for us, so now I’m really looking forward to Sweden where I think we can be competitive. We’re certainly determined to show what we can do.”