How Loeb did the unthinkable in Sweden

Rally Sweden was first conquered by a non-Nordic driver in 2004 - one with very little experience on snow

Swedish Rally 2004

There’s an element of paradox to rallying. On the one hand, it takes tradition seriously: the underlying format has adapted somewhat, been made more time-efficient – but is fundamentally similar to the old days. Just a bit shorter.

But the way to go about winning the World Rally Championship has radically changed. You previously could pick and choose which events to go to; focus on your strengths, both as a driver and of the car underneath you. For those not in a position to challenge for the big prize, drivers could carve entire careers out of being rapid on a specific type of event.

Such an approach was already starting to go out the window by 2004. But Rally Sweden two decades ago was the point of no return: a Frenchman who’d never won a gravel event won on snow and threw conventional wisdom in the bin.

Being strong where you were comfortable and banking points elsewhere was no longer a reliable strategy. The game was changed forever: you had to be quick everywhere.

Swedish Rally 2004

Victory over the locals was Loeb's first on a loose surface - and was a game-changer

The most unexpected aspect at the time, as hard as it is to believe, might be that it was Loeb, not someone else, that broke the Nordic stronghold on Rally Sweden.

Loeb’s track record on snow at that time was not good. He’d done Rally Sweden in a Citroën Xsara for the previous two years and made little impact: he barely cracked the top 20 in 2002 and while 2003 was an improvement, he still spun more than once on his way to seventh place.

But Citroën, despite a couple of fairly lean years on the snow, was confident that its regular line-up, not a Sweden specialist, was the way to go.

Thomas Rådström had been installed in a works Xsara in 2002 after two podiums in the past three seasons on his home WRC round – but he’d crashed into snowbanks twice and Citroën stopped hiring locals for Sweden afterwards.

Swedish Rally 2004

Loeb's experienced team-mate Sainz was expected to lead the non-Nordic challenge

One key weapon in its arsenal in 2004 that Citroën lacked two years earlier was Carlos Sainz. The double world champion had broken the Nordic levee once before, winning Rally Finland back in 1990. With all his years of experience, he surely would be a prime candidate to pull the same trick again in Sweden.

Defending Nordic honor was reigning world champion Petter Solberg in the lead Subaru Impreza, along with Marcus Grönholm in the recently debuted 307 CC WRC.

And then there was Ford: in Markko Märtin it had a clear victory contender but it was also one of the last bastions of the regional specialist – Francois Duval was dropped to third car and Finn Janne Tuohino given responsibility to score points.

It all looked rosy for Sainz after a handful of stages. Grönholm’s 307 suffered an issue that became a recurring nuisance for the big red Peugeot: broken power steering, which allowed Sainz to take the lead and form a Citroën 1-2.

Marcus Gronholm Story

Broken power-steering was only the start of Grönholm's downfall

And then it all fell apart very quickly: Sainz sheared the studs from his tires and dropped almost a minute to Märtin, went off and got stuck in a snowbank and played pinball with Mikko Hirvonen’s Subaru, pulling away from the snowbank he’d been stuck in and pinging Hirvonen off in the opposite direction as he tried to pass. Whoops.

Solberg meanwhile had no anti-lag system and overcooked a junction trying to drive around the problem: almost a minute was lost and suddenly Loeb found himself as the only driver left chasing Märtin.

Making up for the time lost to his dodgy power steering, Grönholm was on a charge. The signs were there: he ran very wide at a right-hander on the second pass of Sundsjon, dipping the left side of his 307 off the road.

He got away with it. Märtin did not, doing the same thing but keeping his foot in, striking a rock and breaking the left-rear wheel of his Focus RS WRC. Whoops again.

Swedish Rally 2004

Gambling at keeping his foot in did not pay off for Märtin

It was now Loeb’s rally to lose. And there was a chance he’d lose it. A determined Grönholm sensed an opportunity with only 26.2s to find and pushed like hell. But that push dumped him into a snowbank at three-figure speed and sent his Peugeot pirouetting, shedding its front bumper and lights in the process.

Loeb’s lead was now 40 seconds. Today’s Loeb would probably be comfortable with that. This one, the one that had only won on asphalt in the WRC and had struggled for pace on snow in the past, seemed less so.

On Sunday morning, Loeb stood in Citroën hospitality, being interviewed by the media: “It’s always a pressure when you’re leading a race and you want to finish in this position. But for the moment I think only of the race,” he said, shifting nervously from side to side to the point he was dipping out of frame of the television cameras. Off he quickly scuttled back to his Xsara.

Despite the experience gap, it was Grönholm that blinked first. On the very first stage he clipped another snowbank and spun again, shipping 30 seconds. Loeb no longer had to worry – the Nordic challenge had fallen, risen and finally fallen once again.

It was two wins from two for Loeb in 2004. Some may have been surprised that Loeb, not Sainz or Märtin, had ended up as the first non-Scandinavian to win in Sweden. But his team boss Guy Frequelin was not.

“For sure it’s very surprising for everyone but not for me,” said Frequelin. “Because I know Sébastien is very fast in every surface.”

Swedish Rally 2004

Citroën boss Frequelin had faith in his fellow Frenchman

Further back, Tuohino’s turn as the local specialist for Ford was objectively successful. Fourth place, making him the lead Focus, meant he’d done exactly what Malcolm Wilson needed from him – got points on the board.

But it also represented a swansong of the Nordic ringer as a concept – Solberg had caught and passed him for third and though Tuohino was able to hold fourth, Sainz had recovered sufficiently to push him all the way.

As for Grönholm, he was magnanimous in defeat. “I was fighting back and maybe trying a little too much to catch Loeb and we had our spins,” he confessed.

Swedish Rally 2004

Tuohino did his job, but it wasn't enough to justify the need for local specialists

Bosse always had a knack for delivering big statements with few words. He would usually get to the point without filter. As the service park chirped away about Scandinavian dominance in Sweden finally ending, it was Grönholm that delivered the most concise analysis of all when queried about a driver from the south conquering northern Europe.

“Why not? He’s good,” he said of Loeb.

“It’s not our surface, it’s everybody’s.”

Only three of the past 10 Rally Swedens have been won by Scandinavians: two by Jari-Matti Latvala and one by Kalle Rovanperä. Thierry Neuville, Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans have all won in that same period.

Loeb was the first to conquer it – but Swedish snow really is for everyone now, as Grönholm pointed out two decades ago.