The second round in the WRC calendar yet again didn’t fail to disappoint, offering up a feast of Swedish action as the crews did battle on the icy roads of Varmland.
The rally got underway in the usual fashion on Thursday Night with the ‘super special’ based in Karlstad. Toyota’s Yari Matti Latvala beat the rest of the WRC field by 0.9 seconds, ahead of Thierry Neuville with Championship leader Sebastian Ogier down in 5th.
Friday’s opening tests of Rojen and Hof Finnskog were happy hunting grounds for Thierry Neuville, winning both stages before Latvala clawed back 8.8 seconds in the 24.88 km of SS4 – putting Latvala 3.9 seconds in front before midday service. Neuville got away with clipping a rock on his front right inside wheel, but unfortunately Citroen’s number two Craig Breen was not so lucky, damaging his right hand front damper in the same corner. A resurgent Ogier also started to move up the leader board from 8th to 4th.
The repeated loop was once again in Neuville’s favour, winning the repeat stages of SS5, SS6 and SS7. Kiwi Hayden Paddon was second best to the Belgium in SS5 with Meeke sliding into a ditch and Juho Hanninen suffering a similar fate to that in Monte Carlo, hitting a tree and retiring after the stop control. Norway’s finest Mads Ostberg survived a heart stopping moment when the rear wing on his M Sport Fiesta broke off in 6th gear, resulting in a nose heaving landing after one of Sweden’s notorious high speed jumps.
Only the Estonian of Ott Tanak broke up Neuville’s winning streak in SS8, after Thierry’s door unexpectedly opened mid stage. Britain’s Kris Meeke ended Friday’s stages a frustrated man, having slipped from 3rd to fourth his off piste excursion in stage 5.
Swedish fans didn’t have to wait long for some proper high speed action after Ott Tanak blasted through SS9 of Knon 1, winning the stage by 2.6 seconds and in doing so setting the fastest average stage speed for 35 years (85.65mph). Unfortunately this ultimately led to the cancelation of the repeat SS12 on safety grounds.
Tanak continued his blistering pace to win the following 2 stages of Hagfors and the legendary Vargassen stage. The first pass through Vargassen gave the crews the added challenge of navigating the infamous Colin’s Crest jump, named after the 1995 world champion. Norway’s Mads Ostberg offered up the biggest entertainment launching his Fiesta 42 meters over the jump to the delight of the gathering horde of fans.
The Afternoon stages started with SS13 of Flargfors after the cancellation of SS12, with Latvala taking top honours with a charging Tanak close behind. However, it was the new rally leader, Thierry Neuville who cemented his dominance in the overall standings after SS15 (Vargassen 2) to head in to the repeated Karlstad Super special with well over half a minutes lead on Latvala and Tanak.
However Neuville was about to prove lightning can indeed strike twice. A heavy impact on his front left wheel after clipping a hay bale resulted in broken suspension and a bitter end to Neuville’s staggering performance. Cries of “C’est impossible!” erupted from the distraught Neuville inside the steaming stricken Hyundai. Once again the Belgium’s scintillating show of speed had succumbed to a broken track control rod, mirroring Neuville’s Monte incident few weeks beforehand.
This late drama promoted Latvala to rally leader with only 3 stages to go, but with Tanak only 3.8 seconds behind the Fin, it looked like an intense battle was on the cards.
Sunday’s 21.19km opening stage of Likenas (SS16) played perfectly into Latvala’s hands – 7.1 seconds quicker with only 2 short stages remaining gave Latvala a well deserved smile. Meanwhile Sebastian Ogier made, in his own words, “one of the stupidest mistakes of his career”, spinning on the first corner and then stalling.
At the stage end Ogier conceded defeat and his priorities turned towards guarding his podium position. Another repeat of the stage as SS17 only allowed Latvala to flex the Yaris’s muscles further, again beating Tanak’s fiesta by 9.1 seconds which gave Latvala an overall cushion of over 20 seconds heading into the Power Stage.
As Latvala’s allocated start time rapidly approached for SS18 the whole Toyota Gazoo WRC team held their breath, Toyota’s last recorded victory in the championship was back in 1999 with Didier Auriol at the wheel in China. 9 nail biting minutes later Latvala soared over the Power Stage finish jump, giving the returning Toyota team their maiden victory and Latvala picking up 5 power stage bonus points in the process too.
After much congratulating and celebrating in the Toyota camp, Latvala took to the podium to claim his 17th career victory and in doing so lead the 2017 WRC drivers’ championship by 5 points ahead of Monte Carlo winner Sebastian Ogier. Latvala will no doubt be energised by his return to form after a difficult 2016 season. Latvala will also be chomping at the bit in anticipation for the WRC’s next stop in Mexico, which proved to be happy hunting grounds for the Fin last year with his only 2016 rally win.
So with the 2017 WRC in full swing will championship leader Latvala build on his renewed confidence? Or will the French master Mousier Ogier begin the fight back in earnest? We’ll have to wait until Rally Mexico in a few weeks time to find out.
Image source: WRC.com/Autosport