Kalle Rovanperä has claimed his third career win in the World Rally Championship, and first on snow and ice, as he emerged on top of a weekend-long battle on Rally Sweden to rise to the top of the championship standings.
The 21-year-old beat Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville by 22 seconds, while his Toyota team-mate Esapekka Lappi bagged his first podium in almost three years on his first rally back with the factory team.
Victory – plus second on the powerstage – elevates Rovanperä into a 14-point championship lead over Neuville after two rallies, while Monte Carlo Rally winner Sébastien Loeb remains in the top three despite not even competing this weekend.
Toyota’s one-three finish has also moved it ahead of M-Sport Ford in the manufacturers’ race, while a far more positive event for Hyundai has helped it close the gap to M-Sport too.
For the first time since the end of 2006, neither Loeb nor Sébastien Ogier – who have won 17 of the last 18 world titles between them – were present in Sweden, opening up the competition.
And that certainly proved to be the case as there were six drivers in the fight for supremacy on the opening day.
Ott Tänak, Lappi, Rovanperä, Elfyn Evans and Neuville all led the rally at one point on the first day as the lead changed hands through the first four stages. Oliver Solberg was also in the mix meaning all three factory cars for both Toyota and Hyundai were in the scrap.
M-Sport’s Craig Breen had hoped to be in the battle but was seventh after the first stage as he spun in a narrow section which then somehow set off his windshield washer jets. The water froze on Breen’s windshield and distracted him, leading him to him going off and into a thick snowbank with no chance to escape on SS2.
Although he restarted on Saturday he would later retire with a technical failure, only to return once more on Sunday and salvage just one point from the weekend courtesy of going fifth fastest on the powerstage.
Tänak was the next to fall. Having closed to just 1.1s of leader Evans on SS5, the loss of hybrid power aboard his Hyundai towards the end of that stage would spell disaster.
On the way to SS6 the green light – illuminated in all Rally1 cars to mark if the 100kW hybrid unit is safe or not – flickered to red and Tänak therefore had no choice but to retire.
He too then had to focus on the powerstage and managed to claim five points with the stage win – his first haul of what’s been a trying start to the season for the only top-class world champion competing full-time in 2022.
Team-mate Neuville fared better however, leading after the first day largely due to some superb tire management in the afternoon. But he was quickly overhauled on the second day as Rovanperä began to flex his muscles and establish a small gap at the front.
An overshoot didn’t help Neuville and he had to give second best to both Rovanperä and Evans who went into the final day split by just 8.3s.
But Evans, who bizarrely went off across the finish line after running wide and powering into a soft snowbank on Saturday’s final stage, was later docked 10s for deviating from the official rally route as he used an access road to rejoin the stage and make the stop control.
That made his victory chances far more unrealistic but they were extinguished completely on Sunday’s opener as he came in too hot to a sweeping left-hander, oversteered and smacked the inside snowbank which did significant damage to his GR Yaris Rally1 – so much so that a few meters later he was forced to retire.
It was a costly mistake, as it leaves Evans 42 points down on the series leader after the first two rounds.
Rovanperä was however peerless. Shrugging off the difficulty of opening the road on the first day, as soon as he took the lead on Saturday he was pressured in the overall classification but never bettered to grab Toyota’s first victory of the new hybrid Rally1 era.
“For sure I’m really pleased, I didn’t think we can be this good especially starting first on Friday so it was quite a big job so I have to say I’m really happy,” said the winner.
“I don’t feel like celebrating too much now, it’s been a really difficult for the people in Ukraine. I just really hope they can have the strength and hope in these difficult times and I think that’s all I can do at this moment.”
Second for Neuville was an equally fantastic result given Hyundai’s troubles on the Monte Carlo Rally, but the position was only claimed by a narrow 8.6s over Lappi who was a touch uncomfortable to push to the absolute maximum at points during the weekend.
Fourth place marked a fine return to form for Takamoto Katsuta who, aside from one trip into a snowbank that cost him 30s, had a flawless weekend – coming alive on the second day after some overnight set-up changes.
The Toyota Next Generation driver bested M-Sport’s Gus Greensmith and Solberg who completed the top six.
Solberg had of course been in the lead fight early on but dropped back a bit throughout the first afternoon after cooking his tires and losing too many of his precious studs. He therefore decided to focus on protecting his fifth place, but a throttle problem on Saturday’s final stage meant he checked in 16 minutes late – copping a 2m40s penalty – and then lost another 1m30s on the test.
That dumped him behind both Katsuta and Greensmith, but it was still a far better event than on the Monte Carlo Rally where he was plagued by a mysterious fumes issue.
Greensmith matched his fifth place finish from Monte Carlo last month, but his weekend was far less smooth than the season opener was.
An overshoot on the first stage kind of set the tone for a trying three days where he had to have a new gearbox fitted on Friday which meant a new differential had to be installed with it, and Greensmith found it “undriveable” – surviving a wild moment into a snowbank.
From there he was embroiled in a tame battle with team-mate Adrien Fourmaux but jumped ahead when Fourmaux ran into technical troubles that cost him four minutes on Saturday’s final test and then any chance of finishing at all on Sunday when it transpired they hadn’t been cured, and he retired on the way to the final leg’s first stage.
It was a brutal bump back to earth for M-Sport after its victory and double podium in Monaco, and cruel for Fourmaux who had done his job impeccably to keep his nose clean after his big crash on round one.
The attrition in the Rally1 field allowed the leading WRC2 cars to filter into the lower half of the top 10, and just as he had on the Monte it was Andreas Mikkelsen that took seventh overall and the WRC2 class win in his Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo.
But he was made to work for it, as Norwegian compatriot Ole Christian Veiby was often quicker in his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 and indeed led for much of Friday before an overshoot on the day’s final stage.
The battle enraged on Saturday and Veiby looked like he had the pace to win, but a spin on the penultimate stage settled it in Mikkelsen’s favor.
But it was a strong return to WRC action for Veiby who hadn’t competed on the world stage since being banned for six months for a COVID-19 rules breach at last May’s Rally Portugal.
Nikolay Gryazin had been set for third in WRC2 before digging himself into a snowbank one stage from home, opening the door for M-Sport’s Jari Huttunen to seal the position instead. Egon Kaur finished fourth in class in his VW to complete the overall top 10.
Rovanperä’s win continues a streak of different victors on Rally Sweden; he became the sixth different winner from the past six editions. Historically, he has now also won the same event that his father Harri did 21 years ago.
Jon Armstrong has made amends for his 2021 Junior WRC title miss and horror Sweden crash in 2020 by winning the first round of the junior series to utilize four-wheel-drive machines.
Armstrong was embroiled in a weekend-long battle with Lauri Joona; the pair trading the lead throughout but Armstrong prevailed by just 2.7s in a final stage battle.
“I can’t believe it!” said Armstrong. “Honestly I didn’t think I was going to be here two months ago so to come here and win is crazy. So surprising but amazing, what a start to the championship.”
William Creighton scored his first Junior WRC podium in third while reigning champion Sami Pajari was hampered by a technical issue aboard his Ford Fiesta Rally3 on the first day.
1 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) 6m29.813s
2 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +1.972s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +2.377s
4 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +2.861s
5 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +3.385s
6 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai) +4.151s
7 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota) +7.236s
8 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +9.065s
9 Emil Lindholm/Reeta Hämäläinen (Škoda) +24.654s
10 Georg Linnamäe/James Morgan (Volkswagen) +29.948s
Final positions after SS19
1 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) 2h10m44.9s
2 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +22.0s
3 Lappi/Ferm (Toyota) +30.6s
4 Katsuta/Johnston (Toyota) +2m19.4s
5 Greensmith/Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +3m20.4s
6 Solberg/Edmondson (Hyundai) +5m39.4s
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Škoda) +7m11.1s
8 Ole Christian Veiby/Stig Rune Skjaermoen +7m34.3s
9 Jari Huttunen/Mikko Lukka (M-Sport Ford) +8m14.2s
10 Egon Kaur/Silver Simm (Volkswagen) +8m24.8s
1 Rovanperä 46 2 Neuville 32 3 Sébastien Loeb 27 4 Greensmith 20 5 Sébastien Ogier 19 6 Katsuta 18 7 Breen 16 8 Lappi 15 9 Mikkelsen 12 10 Solberg 8
1 Toyota Gazoo Racing 83 2 M-Sport Ford 59 3 Hyundai Motorsport 47 4 TGR Next Generation 22
1 Mikkelsen 51 2 Erik Cais 18 3 Veiby 18 4 Huttunen 15 5 Nikolay Gryazin 15 6 Sean Johnston 12 7 Kaur 12 8 Grégoire Munster 12 9 Linnamäe 12 10 Yohan Rossel 11