WRC is the closest of all world class motorsport competition to the genuine road environment, though conditions vary considerably across the 13 race, five continent series from last weekend’s first round in Sweden where blizzards and -28ºC temperatures necessitated tungsten-tipped studded Michelin tyres, through to the gravel and rocks and 40ºC temperatures the cars will encounter a fortnight from now in Mexico.
New “environmentally aware” regulations were introduced this year based around 1600cc turbocharged, 4WD cars, and Ford's all-new Fiesta RS made a dream debut with a 1-2-3 finish.
Snow plough duty on day one and a puncture on day two stopped seven-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb from getting near the podium but Loeb’s new Citroen DS3 challenger proved fast and reliable and recorded more fastest stage times than rally winner Hirvonen.
The first rally for the new-generation cars proved an exciting one with five drivers starting the final day with a realistic chance of victory. In the end, it was Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen which took the win by just 6.5sec from Mads Østberg and Jonas Andersson. Hirvonen's team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila were third.
Hirvonen's victory makes him Ford's most successful WRC driver. This was his 13th victory, edging him ahead of former team-mate Marcus Grönholm. Conditions were ideal for winter rallying as drivers battled over 22 speed tests covering 351 kilometers in central Sweden. The forest roads were frozen hard by temperatures that dipped as low as -28ºC, providing perfect grip for Michelin's tungsten-tipped studded tyres. However, blizzards on the opening leg of the four-day event handicapped the early starters as they ploughed the roads to leave a cleaner and faster line for those behind.
As championship title holder, Loeb started the event as the first car on the road and with the snow deep, crisp and even across the stages the Frenchman lost a huge amount of time on day one clearing the snow away for the cars following him.
This meant that on day two he had nearly two minutes to make up on the event leaders who had maximised their advantage, but his fightback came to nothing when a puncture, rare on snow events, at the start of a long stage meant that Loeb’s DS3 had to limp along for more than 15 kms, put him right out of contention for a front line finish.
Hirvonen benefited from a later start position on the opening leg to end it just 14.8sec behind Østberg. Second in the start order was far from ideal in the second leg. However, he took the lead and built up a healthy advantage before a spin handed 15 seconds back to his rivals. He began the final day with a 7.4sec lead and, on roads that were remarkably free of loose snow, extended it with three stage wins. Grip was worse when the tests were repeated, but Hirvonen preserved his lead to repeat his 2010 Swedish victory and set the stage for a thrilling duel with Loeb which is almost certain to go down to the wire. "It was an amazing weekend for the whole team and a fantastic feeling to stand on the top step of the podium for the first time for 12 months, surrounded by Ford colleagues," said the 30-year-old Finn. "Technically, the car was fantastic and I didn't need to change the set-up once. It's early days with the car, but I'm really starting to understand how it behaves now. The car and I are learning together. "The roads were clean and smooth this morning, and I pushed as hard as I could because I knew they would be dirtier this afternoon. I'm not usually nervous, but I was before the final stage. Østberg put up a great fight and I didn't have enough time in hand for even a small mistake. After such a difficult season last year, this is a superb start to 2011," added Hirvonen. Latvala enjoyed a roller-coaster weekend, mixing stage-winning pace with several spins into snow banks. He ended the opening leg in fourth and admitted he was lucky to escape unscathed from three spins. The 25-year-old Finn was too aggressive early in the second leg and couldn't find a rhythm, but was transformed in the afternoon to reduce the gap to the lead from 44.3sec to 10.9sec. His victory hopes ended when he slid into a snowbank on the opening stage this morning. The impact ripped the front bumper from the car and his windscreen froze up. He dropped to fifth, but fastest time in two of the final three stages brought a hard-earned podium. "It was the most eventful rally weekend of my life and, after so many ups and downs, I'm really happy with third," said Latvala. "I was close to the top of the leaderboard so many times, but then I found another snow bank to hinder me. A podium didn't look likely this morning but I didn't give up, I kept fighting and got my reward. Now I can breathe easily. After hitting the bank this morning, my windscreen froze and the sun and snow dust hanging in the air made visibility so tricky," he added.
This left Ogier and Solberg to fly the flag for the new Citroen DS3, with Solberg getting as high as third place during the event and Ogier being highly competitive, despite his relative lack of experience in the frozen stages of Sweden.
But on the final day the snow had another trick up its sleeve that, this time, handed the advantage to those first on the road. The lack of wind caused snow to be suspended in the air reducing the drivers’ visibility.
“It was very difficult,” said Julien Ingrassia. “We had a white veil in front of the bonnet. The snow remained suspended in the air and didn’t fall because there was no wind.”
“I had to lift off in some of the quicker sections just to be able to see,” added Ogier. “I preferred not to take any risks. With the road covered with a good layer of hard ice, Mikko Hirvonen could take advantage of the best possible conditions. Behind, it was difficult to find the right trajectory because of snow on the apexes.”
Ogier finished the rally in fourth place scoring three additional points thanks to his performance in the Power Stage that ended the event: “I’m pretty happy with the result on only my second outing in Rally Sweden.
We’ve got a lot of positive conclusions to draw from this event. Despite the difficulties, we’ve shown that the Citroën DS3 WRC is quick. I can’t wait to race on gravel where the car looks like it’ll run well.”
Sébastien Loeb, alone in sixth place, finished the rally without any pressure: “As I had nothing to aim for, I just had to bring the car home. Even if the result isn’t in keeping with our expectations, we had to score some points in the opening round, and we took advantage of the Power Stage to add another two. Thanks to our sixth place we may have a good starting position in Rally Mexico!”
Petter Solberg and former Formula One champion Kimi Räikkönen in Citroën DS3 WRCs prepared by Citroën Racing Technologies also reached the finish of the first rally of the season. The Norwegian came home fifth, and the Finn arrived back in Karlstad in eighth place after a performance that bodes well for the rest of the championship.
“For their first race, the Citroën DS3 WRCs proved both reliable and competitive throughout the weekend,” summed up Olivier Quesnel, the Citroën Racing Team Principal. “Before the start we knew that we weren’t favourites on this very specific surface. Let’s wait for the first stages on gravel to have a better idea of each one’s potential.”
The championship switches to gravel next month for the first of two rallies in the 2011 calendar in the Americas. Rally Mexico is based in León on gravel thousands of metres above sea level and will take place between 3 and 6 March 2011.
1. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Fiesta RS 3hr 23min 56.6sec 2. M Østberg/J Andersson NOR Ford Fiesta RS 3hr 24min 03.1sec 3. J-M Latvala/M Anttila FIN Ford Fiesta RS 3hr 24min 30.6sec 4. S Ogier/J Ingrassia FRA Citroen DS3 3hr 24min 44.3sec 5. P Solberg/C Patterson NOR Citroen DS3 3hr 25min 27.8sec 6. S Loeb/D Elena FRA Citroen DS3 3hr 26min 26.9sec 7. P-G Andersson/E Axelsson SWE Ford Fiesta RS 3hr 30min 18.6sec 8. K Räikkönen/K Lindström FIN Citroen DS3 3hr 30min 58.9sec 9. M Wilson/S Martin GBR Ford Fiesta RS 3hr 34min 08.1sec 10 K Al Qassimi/M Orr UAE Ford Fiesta RS 3hr 34min 27.7sec Drivers: M Hirvonen 25pts, M Østberg 18pts, J-M Latvala 16pts, S Ogier 15pts, P Solberg 10pts,S Loeb 10pts Manufacturers: 1. Ford Abu Dhabi 40pts 2. Citroen Total 22pts 3. M-Sport Stobart Ford 18pts 4. Ice 1 Racing 8pts 5. Team Abu Dhabi 6pts 6. FERM Power Tools 4pts