The first race of the 2015 WRC season ended in overwhelming victory for the Volkswagen team, particularly for the defending world champion Sebastien Ogier. VW controlled every position on the podium last month, while Citroen’s Mads Ostberg managed to clinch fourth. Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville squeaked by his teammate Dani Sordo for a fifth-place finish.
The frigid woods of Sweden formed the backdrop for round two, with tall snow banks, icy surfaces, long power slides between the trees, breathtaking jumps, and authentic Scandinavian flicks. Thanks to studded rubber, thicker ice equates to more bite, making Rally Sweden one of the fastest events of the year. Incredibly, grip levels with this tire/surface combination approach those of slicks on clean tarmac.
In the 62-event history of Rally Sweden, only two non-Scandinavians have managed to secure the top spot. Sebastien Loeb is one of those individuals, winning in 2004, while Sebastien Ogier is the second, with a victory in 2013.
Click past the jump to read more about the 2015 Rally Sweden.
Things kicked off Thursday night in Karlstad with a super special stage in front of a throng of bundled-up fans. Before heading into the forest, competitors would go side-by-side on a rally cross circuit, with tight, sharp corners, and a crossover bridge spectacularly lit by pyrotechnics.
Hyundai’s Dani Sordo was not in attendance for this year’s event, due to broken ribs the Spanish driver sustained in a mountain bike crash. In his stead was the young Dutchman Kevin Abbring, making his first appearance behind the wheel of a WRC car. He finished the evening in 10th.
Ogier was paired with Ostberg for the first stage, and the Frenchman struggled to put the power down at the off. Ostberg pulled further ahead when Ogier clipped the outside of a long sweeper, dropping him down to seventh overall. Ostberg was able to grab second, while local boy Pontus Tideman took his Ford Fiesta to his first stage victory.
Jari-Matti Latvala put on a good performance sliding into third, with Thierry Neuville in fourth and Andreas Mikkelsen rounding out the top five going into Friday.
Before the night was over, Ostberg had some choice words for the world champion, saying, “I want to show Ogier how it’s going to be this weekend.” Sebastien’s response lacked confidence: “I think it’s a long rally and of course I think it will not be so difficult for him to beat me this weekend if he drives a little bit well. I have a difficult rally in front of me.”
Moving from the fireworks of Karlstad into the stark Scandinavian landscape, Friday saw more than a few drivers caught out. The first was Ott Tanak, who slid a bit wide, clipping a bank and putting the front end of his Ford into the deep snow. The Estonian stayed on the throttle in an attempt to maintain his momentum, taking out an inflatable road marker in the process. In total, Tanak dropped 18 seconds.
By the third stage, the running order was reshuffled, with Ogier making a hard charge back into the lead, followed by Latvala, Ostberg, and Mikkelsen. The reigning world champion continued to push, increasing the gap from second by another 5.8 seconds.
The Scandinavians responded, fighting to maintain ground on their home turf, with Mikkelsen managing to take the third position from his compatriot Ostberg.
Northern Irishman Kris Meeke was running in an impressive fifth place for the opening stages of Friday, but a very hairy spin in sixth gear almost put him into the forest, costing him 30 seconds in total. Later in the day, Meeke would go wide after a crest, planting the rear end of his car firmly into the powder, costing him another three minutes and ruining any hope of a top place finish.
Back at the front, the battle continued. A malfunctioning wiper kept Ogier’s attention divided, which was compounded by a cracked windshield caused by improperly replaced hood pins. Hot on his heels, the Scandinavians continued their tussle.
But it was on the final stage of the day that Ogier spun, braking too late and planting his VW into the powder, losing 30 seconds. Latvala suffered a far worse fate, going wide and getting stuck. Despite the gallant efforts of local fans to push the Polo R back onto the stage, eight minutes were lost, punting Latvala to the back of the field.
That meant Mikkelsen, a Norwegian driver without a WRC win to his name, was now comfortably in the lead. “That makes things interesting,” he remarked upon hearing the news. “Ok, it’s sad for them, they did a good rally, but if I know Ogier right, he will never give up”
The excitement was palpable on Saturday, with the day’s stages including a flight through the snow clouds over Colin’s Crest. Named after the late rally legend Colin McRae, this top-speed takeoff gives birth to some of the most outrageous airborne theatrics seen this side of an air show.
Ogier was running in fourth, and despite struggling with too much snow on the road, the Frenchman began his ascent back toward the podium. Ostberg facilitated this rise with an impact that shredded his left rear tire, placing him behind the two-time world champion.
Mikkelsen was surely pouring in everything he had, but the blistering pace caught up with him, resulting in a slight nudge off a bank. He held onto the lead, but conceded some time to Ogier, who closed the gap to 20.8 seconds. By the end of stage 13, Ogier was back into second place, followed by Neuville in third and Ostberg in fourth.
Stage 14 saw this year’s first run off Colin’s Crest. Mikkelsen was able to fling his Volkswagen a distance of 135 feet with nothing but atmosphere under his wheels. Clearly, the 25-year-old was pushing hard, aching for a first-time win at his home event. But a big spin saw his comfortable gap vanish, with only 1.7 seconds between him and second place.
The final stage of the day was a repeat run through Vargasan, with the top positions in hot contention. Mikkelsen was able to beat out Ogier, but lost the rally lead to Neuville, who blasted over Colin’s Crest for a distance of 144 feet and bested Mikkelsen by just 1.5 seconds.
The final day of Rally Sweden 2015 began with Neuville out front, followed by Mikkelsen and Ogier, with less than 10 seconds separating the top three positions. Ostberg was running in a very respectable fourth, a little under a minute from the leaders, but promptly stuffed it into a snow bank and slipped down to 10th.
Back at the front, the fat was most definitely in the fire. Ogier was running fastest, but was nevertheless unable to overcome Mikkelsen. Neuville started the day with an intercom problem after a hard landing on Saturday, making it difficult to hear the pace notes of co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul. The Belgian was running at the absolute limit, even over in places, including a moment when he tagged a snow bank and smashed up his left front fender.
That small mistake put Mikkelsen back into the lead 3.8 seconds ahead of Neuville, with Ogier trimming the gap to second to 3 seconds dead.
The penultimate stage, a technical downhill descent, saw Mikkelsen drop another 3.8 seconds to the quickly approaching Ogier, who bested Neuville by 4.6 seconds to claw into second place. Only 3 seconds separated the top two drivers.
It all came down to the final stage. Ogier kept his cool, scorching Neuville by almost 5 seconds. Mikkelsen was on maximum attack, besting Ogier in the split times right up to a spin that rooted him deep into a snow bank. The young Norwegian managed to free himself, but when he finally crossed the line, his hopes for a first WRC win in Sweden were shattered, supplanted instead by a third-place finish.
“This one was a crazy one,” Ogier remarked after a jubilant yell upon learning of his victory. “Flat out from the beginning to the end.”
Mikkelsen was devastated: “Disappointed of course. We gave it everything. I really wish it could have happened here.”
“I’m proud what we have done this weekend. We gave the world champion a great fight,” he added. “This will definitely not kill the motivation.”
With round two now in the history books, Ogier leads the Driver’s Championship with 53 points, Neuville and Mikkelsen sit at 30 points, Latvala has 19 points, and Ostberg has 14 points. In the Manufacturer’s Championship, Volkswagen leads with 68 points, Hyundai is second with 55 points, and Ford is third with 32 points.
Next, the WRC will head to the gravel roads of Mexico for round three slated to begin March 5th.