Winter wonderland – the WRC visits Sweden

Challenging conditions, studded snow tyres, and Sebastien Loeb on the hunt for victory promise to make Rally Sweden an instant classic.

This weekend sees one of the highlights of the annual FIA World Rally Championship calendar – the snowy Swedish challenge that is the WRC’s only event run in true wintry conditions.

The challenging surface and changeable conditions over 1,589.78 kilometres and 22 stages are at the forefront of the 47 WRC and WRC-2 competitors’ minds in the run-up to Thursday’s practice and qualifying sessions.

“I remember how surprised Yves Matton was when I suggested including this rally in my programme,’’ said Loeb.

Now celebrating its 61st year, Rally Sweden courses through the snowbound forests of Norway and Sweden, pitting the world’s top rally drivers against each other in one of the fastest events of the season. The trick up their sleeve? Specially commissioned narrow tungsten-studded snow tyres give the drivers the grip they need to rocket through the tricky terrain.

“Obviously, we'll have to deal with the conditions, which can vary depending on how cold it gets and any snowfall,” Mikko Hirvonen said. “That can affect the wear of the tyres. The new Michelin X-Ice North tyres seem more hard-wearing on the frozen gravel, but we'll only really be able to tell in the race.”

Motorsport Italia team manager Bruno de Pianto explained his team’s tyre choice in their Rally Sweden preview: “We’re using DMACK winter tyres and looking forward to testing them after DMACK’s development over the past year,” he wrote. “There have been changes in construction, compound and studding details to improve performance on the snow and ice of the fast Swedish stages. The new studding technology was developed in-house in Finland where DMACK could use the expertise and experience of their Scandinavian partners to improve the complex process. The new T-bar studding system helps with stud retention and stability, which is essential for us, because the DMG-ICE will be the tyre that Michał uses throughout the event.”

For the competing tyre suppliers, Rally Sweden presents a unique opportunity to show off their wares in extreme conditions. But the tyres aren’t the only specialised equipment the teams use to make it through the Nordic winter. Contestants must guard against snow blindness and hypothermia, practical considerations not on the agenda at the upcoming events in Mexico and Portugal.

The snow causes mechanical complications, as the slightest misjudgement can see cars stuck in snowbanks, or packing the radiators with snow. But it’s not all bad news - drivers can also use the snow to their advantage, treating the banks as soft barriers that allow them to lean their cars further through each corner for maximum speed.

Further spicing up the action this weekend will be Sebastien Loeb, who will be making a last-ditch attempt to repeat his 2004 Swedish victory. The WRC star has but three rounds remaining of his part-time retirement season, and the Frenchman’s decision to include Rally Sweden surprised those closest to him.

“I remember how surprised [team principal] Yves Matton was when I suggested including this rally in my programme,’’ said Loeb. “It is undoubtedly not one of the rallies where I have enjoyed the most success in recent years, but that’s exactly why I’m keen to compete here. To be honest, our win here in 2004 wasn’t a particularly great race. We won mainly because the other guys ran into problems. Since then I have been trying to understand and master these stages. So, I am here one final time to try and go out in style.”