Home favorite Oliver Solberg heads European Rally Championship leader Hayden Paddon by 3.9 seconds after the first loop of stages on the European Rally Championship’s Royal Rally of Scandinavia.
One-time World Rally Championship event winner Paddon was fastest on the first two stages to open a 2.5s lead. But Solberg hit back as his confidence grew, going 4.3s faster through the nine miles of SS3 Ängebäckstorp and another 2.1s faster on SS4 Mölnbacka.
Solberg is driving his first event in the family Volkswagen Pole GTI R5 since contesting the Cambrian Rally in Wales last October, and his first high-speed gravel rally since Rally New Zealand seven months ago.
“I did a little bit of adjustment on the car now, getting used to it more and more on the fast roads again,” Solberg said.
Clearly enjoying the roads, especially the ultra-fast Mölnbacka, he added: “The two last ones now are getting better. It’s nice to get into it again, and what a stage… best stage I’ve done in my life – not driving-wise but I mean stage-wise. The roads here are incredible, so it’s fantastic.”
Having followed up his win on the first round of ERC with three second places in the following rounds, Hyundai i20 N Rally2 driver Paddon clearly has one eye on the championship, refusing to up his pace in response to Solberg moving ahead.
“No, that’s not the plan at this stage,” he said. “We’ve got our pace and we’re sticking to our pace, and if that means that we’re in touching distance for later on in the rally, then so be it. But it’s early stages, so we’re just sticking to our strategy at the moment and everything’s feeling quite nice and easy.”
Norwegian Frank Tore Larsen, on his first event at this level since 2018, lies third – 21.3s behind Solberg – at the lunchtime service after an impressive morning in his VW Polo. He said: “I was really hoping that we could fight within the top 10, so I’m getting a little bit goosebumps just talking about it. So happy.”
The Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 of Nikolay Gryazin is fourth, a further 7.6s back, having struggled for grip on the slippery surface. “The times are not really what I expect to have,” he admitted.
Gryazin is just 1.1s ahead of fifth-placed Mikko Heikkilä in the newer Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo. Heikkila also complained of a lack of grip, and reckoned he’d chosen a too-soft compound set of Michelin tires.
A further 5.3s back, Lauri Joona heads a close battle for sixth with fellow Škoda driver Mārtiņš Sesks, winner of the past two ERC rounds. The Finn was ruing a slower qualifying time in yesterday’s shakedown which left him further up the road order than most other leading contenders.
Sesks felt he was hampered by a lack of experience of the Swedish roads which, despite being similarly fast, are different in character from those in Poland and Latvia. “The biggest problem is that we were preparing for something different,” he said.
Filip Mareš, Mathieu Franceschi – who nearly rolled on the opening test – and Josh McErlean complete the early top 10, nearly one minute off the pace. McErlean, who jumped ERC champion Efrén Llarena on the morning’s final stage, suffered an early setback with a high-speed spin on the second test, where he dropped 30s.
“It’s been a tricky start this morning,” admitted McErlean. “It’s about trying to reset and get going again. It’s good to get back to service to get the car checked over because it’s been down the road at all angles.”
Mads Østberg, one of the pre-event favorites, has struggled for pace all morning and lies 12th in his Citroën C3 Rally2, more than a minute behind leader Solberg. “We have to search a bit and discuss with the team what we can do,” he said.
“We are on quite a familiar setting, to be honest. We try to have fun, and the stages are so beautiful, so it would be nice to be able to drive like I want but I feel every corner I cannot do properly. So I know I’m leaving a lot of time everywhere and it’s not a good feeling. If try to increase [the pace] then something happens.”