Rally Sweden is not representative. That’s often the line parroted by drivers and team principals when asked how they stack up in the competitive order early in the year.
The Monte Carlo Rally and Sweden are so specialized in nature that there’s no way of telling who is quick. Not really. Any perceived advantage is an illusion skewed by the specificity of each event.
When it comes to the Rally1 cars that’s still somewhat true. Last weekend was a weird one – lots of long straights, some technical and twisty stuff, but not much in between. And M-Sport had such a nightmare that it’s hard to tell what the Puma’s maximum pace really was.
But the drivers. That’s something else. Not representative of the season ahead? Nonsense.
Kalle Rovanperä pulled an absolute blinder in Sweden. He laid down a marker. That wobbly moment he had on Thursday night in the Alps north of Monaco where he could barely beat Rally2 cars? Forget it. It’s ancient history.
There was no learning curve this time. There was no talk at the end of every loop about chasing the balance. Rovanperä was in the sweet spot from the get-go.
Yet on paper he was in trouble. First on the road for a snow rally? Good luck with that. As Craig Breen had pointed out, that usually doesn’t end well.
“It’s not a coincidence [Sébastiens] Loeb and Ogier have won 16 Monte Carlos between them and how many Swedens have they won between them? It’s very much in single digits, so there’s a reason behind that,” he pointed out before the rally.
“It’s because they’ve always been suffering from bad road positions in Rally Sweden and it’s always been a struggle, more so than any other event in the championship it’s been the one you struggle the most on running close to the front.”
He didn’t win the Monte but Rovanperä was handed the same punishment as Loeb and Ogier had suffered through for over a decade. And he went and did the most Ogier thing possible – win from first on the road.
Apparently not having Ogier was supposed to be a problem for Toyota. “Definitely you miss a guy like this,” said team principal Jari-Matti Latvala before Sweden.
There’s no doubt Ogier is a tour-de-force in rallying. Heck, he’d probably still be favorite to win the title this year if he rocked up in Croatia, told Esapekka Lappi to beat it and commandeered his GR Yaris Rally1 for the rest of the season (but he won’t, to be crystal clear). He’s that good.
Back to Latvala: “I saw that already at the Volkswagen time [as his team-mate between 2013-16]. When Ogier won the second championship, I could see that basically then inside the team, people had a trust ‘OK Ogier can win things. He will win, he will bring the championship. He will win the championship.”
A vacancy sign is on the noticeboard at Jyväskylä. Reliable winner wanted. Internal applicants only. Ogier has resigned his commission and there’s a final round of interviews taking place between Rovanperä and Elfyn Evans.
Rovanperä’s Ogier-esque performance in Sweden has gone a long way towards clinching that most coveted of roles. But at the other end of the scale lies Evans. He’s 42 points off the top of the table after only two rallies. That’s a disaster in its own right. But it’s the reason why Evans is in this position that’s so alarming.
Experience and consistency were supposed to be his trump cards. Within the Toyota camp, he’s the closest thing to a trusty old hand, with 107 WRC starts to his name compared to Rovanperä’s 41. But he’s made unforced driving errors that have cost him any hope of putting big points on the board so far.
That’s not how this was supposed to go. Rovanperä is supposed to the baby-faced prodigy with speed and enthusiasm abound, up against the measured and wily Evans. That narrative makes sense on paper. We can all get our heads around that. Old(er) vs young(er). And on the face of last year that’s what we had reason to expect.
Rovanperä had chucked it off the road on the first stage of Rally Croatia, immediately after he became championship leader last season, and he subsequently plummeted down the standings before a late-season recovery. Only Evans could mount a challenge to Ogier.
But we witnessed the total opposite in Sweden this year.
Friday morning had bestowed some luck upon Rovanperä’s shoulders. There was so much loose snow about that being first on the road wasn’t much of a problem at all. By the time the historic cars were done with the stages that had all changed, of course. But that’s where strategy came into play.
Rovanperä was calm. He’d fallen from first to fifth in the space of two stages but he didn’t lose sight of the objective: don’t overwork the tires when there’s so little chance of mitigating the losses in the narrow tracks of old Volvos and Saabs.
Evans meanwhile was getting carried away. He’d bolted into the lead on Kroksjö with an emphatic stage win and pressed on thereafter.
Umeå would be his undoing. Twice.
Whether you agree with the 10s penalty dished out or not, Evans ended up there by himself, without assistance
Signs of overworking his tires were already there on Sävar, dropping 6.3s relative to Thierry Neuville. But his rate of time loss on Umeå Sprint was scarcely believable – 1.64 seconds per kilometer. On a fast snow rally that’s like being in a different postcode. His tires simply had nothing left to give.
“It’s never been my strong point on snow, to be honest,” said Evans of his tire management. “Of course, we tried to work on it from last year, and it doesn’t seem like I’ve made a lot of progress.”
What’s worse is that he had absolutely no idea why he couldn’t manage his tires as well as the others.
“Well if I knew that clearly I would simply be better at it,” he said. “I mean for sure on gravel etc, I’m not the hardest [on tires], but it seems on snow I seem to not get something quite right.”
Come Saturday and it was a completely even fight. No road order dynamics. It was one-on-one. And Rovanperä edged it on pure pace. Evans, winner the last time the WRC was in Sweden, couldn’t find anything in his locker to make the difference. In the heat of battle, it was the experienced head that blinked first, not the youngster.
Whether you agree with the 10s penalty dished out for not completing the flying finish at the end of Saturday or not, Evans ended up there by himself, without assistance. No such dramas for Rovanperä. Another self-inflicted setback.
Rovanperä now had 18.3s in hand and Evans had Neuville behind him to worry about. Both were in the same boat: no hybrid boost. Charging back to win wasn’t on the cards but second would still be a good result – it wasn’t over for Evans. Until it was.
On the first stage, his defense against Neuville was already over, radiator damage from a trip into a snowbank too critical to continue in good time. An issue with his hybrid light not showing anything at all required him to park up and took away the chance to score a couple of bonus points on the powerstage, yes – but the mistake had been made regardless.
One driver looked like a young charger trying to prove himself but ultimately making one mistake too many. Another looked like a zen master who’d seen it all before and just rolled with the punches. Rovanperä had somehow flipped the script and given himself the other guy’s role.
Consider Evans’ words before the rally began. He was shifting mindset. Being Mr Consistent hadn’t worked to beat Ogier in a straight fight. Wins were the order of the day.
“Now you look like a bit of an idiot not taking third [in Monte, where he’d gone off and gotten stuck] but at the same time championships are won by winning rallies, we know that’s where the rewards are,” he said.
“If I go [to Sweden] to make sure I finish I’m not going to be challenging for the podium. You’re definitely not going to win championships by doing that.”
So he went the other way. Faced with 18.3s to catch and a sniff of a chance at the win, his team-mate’s Yaris hamstrung by a lack of boost, he went full send – straight into a snowbank.
It seems the new tactic hasn’t worked either. What’s left to try?
Latvala likely had that sinking feeling at Volkswagen – the one where Ogier somehow had another 1% in hand that Latvala simply didn’t have available to access. Sweden looks a bit familiar. As if Ogier had loaned his spare 1% out to Rovanperä, seeing as he didn’t need it himself.
Evans had thrown the kitchen sink at trying to beat him, only to wreck his tires and put himself into multiple snowbanks trying to keep up.
Sweden may not establish a crystal-clear picture of the full competitive order. But Yaris vs Yaris? That’s got to be representative.