Making sense of Sweden’s rollercoaster lead battle

Five drivers took turns leading the opening day of Rally Sweden. But who was really the fastest?


Seven stages, six drivers, five lead changes and just 8.8 seconds separating the top four at the end of the first day of Rally Sweden 2022. Welcome to the new era of the World Rally Championship.

Sébastiens Ogier and Loeb may have stolen the show at last month’s Monte Carlo Rally, but Friday on Rally Sweden proved that the WRC is actually far richer without them.

While if Ogier was present he would’ve been another addition to the fight, his absence rids that feeling of inevitability when he hits the front and records yet another victory.

Rally Sweden has long been an unpredictable event with no driver repeating a victory since Ogier did in 2015 and ’16. But 2022 has, so far, taken that to an entirely new level. We knew it was going to be a good one when just 3.7 seconds covered the top six cars after the opening stage.

Here’s an idea of just how crazy it all was, looking at where each of the Hyundai and Toyotas drivers were overall after each of Friday’s seven stages:

Neuville 4th 6th 2nd 6th 5th 2nd 1st
Rovanperä 2nd 2nd 1st 4th 6th 4th 2nd
Evans 6th 5th 4th 1st 1st 1st 3rd
Lappi 5th 1st 6th 3rd 3rd 3rd 4th
Solberg 3rd 3rd 3rd 2nd 4th 5th 5th
Tänak 1st 4th 5th 5th 2nd Ret Ret

At no point on the opening day was it clear who would stay out front. Just when one driver climbed some positions, they lost nearly all of them on the next stage. The standings yo-yoed from one stage to the other. It was truly captivating.

All three factory Toyotas and Hyundais were in the fight and most of them remain. Only M-Sport’s Craig Breen was missing from the group of expected frontrunners after his stage two accident.

Let’s take a breath, decamp and work out just how the first day in Sweden played out:


Thierry Neuville

Rally leader

It’s doubtful that Thierry Neuville was at the top of many people’s betting slips to lead after the opening day in Sweden, but that’s precisely where the Hyundai driver finds himself.

This was an Ogier-esque performance; battling with an unfancied early start position but staying in touch before pouncing towards the end with superior tire management.

Fourth after the opening stage, Neuville’s SS2 was hampered as he was red-flagged and given a notional time due to Breen’s nosedive into the snow – but that potentially saved his bacon as Neuville later revealed that he had lost hybrid power on that stage.

Things got worse on SS3 as Neuville’s Hyundai developed a separate electric issue, so he was understandably relieved to make it to service and make it there in second place.

He dropped back on SS4 and SS5 where running second on the road was more of a hindrance than it had been in the morning, but he absolutely bossed the final two stages in the night – protecting his studs better than anyone else – to emerge from the shadows and vault into the lead.

A typically gutsy performance.


Kalle Rovanperä

Second place (+4.3s)

Kalle Rovanperä’s Friday was perhaps the most bizarre of all. He struggled as the opening car on the road in the afternoon, as the road cleaning effect was far more profound once the historic cars had passed over the stages and left very different lines with their narrow tracks.

He would surely not have expected to be lying in second place after his initial freefall from the lead at lunchtime.

There had been plenty of speculation about whether running at the front would be a disadvantage or not but Rovanperä’s second-fastest time on the opener proved it wouldn’t hurt him too much.

His entire morning was sensational, staying in second when the lead changed hands on SS2 but hitting the front with an SS3 stage win that earned him a neat 8.4s lead.

But soon Rovanperä’s Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 was sliding down the order as the afternoon road sweeping took its toll. He was immediately down to fourth after the first afternoon stage, then sixth, but was back up to fourth when Oliver Solberg ran into trouble and Ott Tänak retired with an unsafe hybrid unit.

All the toing and froing around him allowed Rovanperä to stay firmly in the hunt when if others had been more clinical, he may well have been much further adrift. But he was one of just two drivers to score multiple stage wins with an under-the-radar scratch on the day’s final test.


Elfyn Evans

Third place (+7.4s)

This was a real day of two halves for Elfyn Evans.

He wasn’t slow out of the blocks by any means but was also the weakest of the six contenders, as he struggled to find the right feeling in his Yaris. After declaring that he needed to start winning rallies to have a better chance at the championship, he was doing exactly what he didn’t want himself to do by slowly picking off rivals when they ran into bigger problems.

Fourth and 11.2s adrift at first service, Evans suddenly shot into the lead on the first stage of the second loop with an assured stage time; boosted by those ahead of him on the leaderboard suffering from road sweeping or other dramas.

Although SS4 would be Evans’ one and only stage win of the day, he was also the only driver to cling onto the lead after inheriting it. Evans remained the leader for the next two stages – despite a wild and scary moment pinballing between snowbanks in the dark of SS6 – but he surrendered it all on the short spectator stage back to Umeå.

With tires that were completely shot, Evans struggled to seventh-fastest time and slithered from first to third right at the death.


Esapekka Lappi

Fourth place (+8.8s)

On his first rally back in the big time, Esapekka Lappi was right on the money early doors as he joined the leading gaggle of drivers fighting for the win.

Fifth, albeit just 1.9s off the pace, on SS1, Lappi was leading after the second stage with a strong 2.5s test victory that, at service, he admitted he didn’t expect to achieve so soon.

Lappi’s movements up and down the leaderboard were some of the most random as after leading, he was all the way down in sixth place come the end of SS3. A stall at the start-line, which then caused his Toyota to run without hybrid boost, was the main culprit.

Running as the second-to-last car onto the stages though, the afternoon road sweeping headache that afflicted others was to Lappi’s benefit and he was able to start climbing back up the leaderboard again.

He mirrored team-mate Evans in a holding position from SS4-SS6 (in Lappi’s case he clung onto third) but he slipped down to fourth on the final stage with tire problems – also like his team-mate.

That said, he’s in a very good position to strike on Saturday despite being last of the four truly convincing victory contenders.


Oliver Solberg

Fifth place (+28.1s)

Despite being in the hunt for six of Friday’s seven stages, Oliver Solberg was the only one of the sextet to never win a stage or lead the rally at any point. Both would’ve been a career-first if he had.

But the Hyundai driver was a welcome addition to the fight, keeping it consistent to hold third throughout the entire morning as the drivers around Solberg all kept leaping ahead or falling behind him.

Starting as the last car on the road certainly helped him out but, despite his own declarations that he was putting in the “worst stage of my career” at points, Solberg’s pace was strong as he was never outside the top four times all the morning.

Things got even better in the afternoon when Solberg crept up to second after SS4, but from there, things started to unravel as he took what he called a tire “gamble” – rotating tires with a different number of studs around the car – that didn’t ultimately pay off.

On SS6 he began to lose touch with his rivals, dropping to 14s behind overall. But worse was to come on SS7. He overshot the first junction and continued to struggle with tire wear to end the day, almost half a minute down on his rally leading team-mate.

Solberg is by no means out of it, but he’ll need a bit of misfortune for others to make any significant inroads.


Ott Tänak


Although Ott Tänak is now nowhere in the overall standings as a result of his retirement on the way to Friday’s penultimate stage, he was a major factor in the battle at the front of Rally Sweden before his misfortune.

Winner of the opening stage to lead the rally – perhaps to the surprise of some given Hyundai’s disastrous Monte Carlo Rally – Tänak slid to fourth after SS2 after not quite finding the right balance with his i20 N Rally1.

Fourth became fifth after SS3 when he lost his front bumper and the resultant loss of aero heavily compromised his stage time, costing him 11s to be exact.

But the road-cleaning troubles for Rovanperä and co allowed Tänak to hit back, closing back in on SS4 and almost threatening to hit the front again on SS5. He won the stage, but a landing over a compression had robbed Tänak’s Hyundai of its hybrid power and he was sure he could’ve taken more time back had that not happened.

This issue ultimately led to Tänak’s downfall as the light towards the rear of his car – that indicates whether the 100kW unit is safe or not – transitioned from green to red, leaving Tänak no option but to pull out of the rally as per the regulations.


What happens tomorrow?

Who knows? And that’s the wonderful thing.

Neuville is the most experienced of the top four and could theoretically have the best road position if being further back does prove to be optimal, but gaps should be tight across the board with all of the contenders bunched together in the running order.

But tire wear should at least be less of an issue with just three stages in both loops, rather than the four of Friday afternoon, due to the cancelation of the Örträsk test.

It’s one Hyundai vs three Toyotas, but it’s the Hyundai that’s out front. It’s three rally winners vs the de facto championship leader; two past Rally Sweden winners vs two Finns.

Are you brave enough to call it?