Since the World Rally Championship’s inception, snow rallies have been a popular early season fixture on the calendar. The traditional place to see the best drivers thread their top-level cars through the high-speed, snow-bank laden roads of the north, was Sweden.
Norway soon joined the party for two years but slipped off the calendar after 2009. Sweden was therefore left as the only proper winter rally once more, but the snow has been hard to come by in recent years. COVID-19 has meant that Rally Sweden is off for 2021 but the plan is to return next year.
In the meantime, Finnish Lapland hosted its first world championship-scoring rally last month behind closed doors (Santa Claus was given a waiver to spectate from his grotto), ensuring the WRC still got its winter fix. Much to the relief of its passionate fans.
DirtFish looks at some of the most memorable winter rallies in WRC history:
Everybody loved Lancia’s Stratos, but even the most hardened tifosi thought the Italians had bitten off more than they could chew when they set about the Swedish Rally with its Ferrari-engined forest racer.
Lancia had form in the snow, courtesy of Harry Källström and a pair of Fulvia-delivered podiums on the 1971 and 1972 events, but the Stratos? Really? Probably worth mentioning the man doing the driving: big Björn Waldegård. The then two-time Swedish champion knew what it took to win at home after a 1970 success at the wheel of a Porsche 911.
But taking on Stig Blomqvist and Saab – the home mad marque which had won the Swedish seven times was a big ask. And ultimately, the Stratos had to give best to Blomqvist’s 96 V4 for much of the rally. But when the Saab hit electrical trouble, Waldegård was right there to score a memorable win.
The sight and sound of the Stratos being driven full bore across frozen lakes and through frozen forests is one few would forget. Neither would Waldegård – that win was his first ever in the recently formed world championship (which was, don’t forget, still only for manufacturers at that point).
Blomqvist finished the event second, but it was a double podium celebration for the Italians when Simo Lampinen’s Lancia Beta edged Per Eklund’s Saab for third place.
Rally Sweden 2011 was the dawning of a new era as the World Rally Championship embarked upon its new 1.6-liter period. With no Monte Carlo on the calendar, Sweden was the season-opener and an instant classic.
A new ruleset always produces great interest, but nobody expected Mads Østberg – on his first event with the Stobart Ford squad – to be leading the way after the first day. Benefiting from a lowly starting position in the fresh snow the Norwegian was in inspired form, and only works Ford pilot Mikko Hirvonen could keep tabs with Østberg in the brand-new Fiesta RS WRC.
It was an event that belonged to Ford which eventually locked out the podium with Hirvonen’s team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala in third; but it was closely fought. Ahead of the final day, just 15.8s separated the top five with privateer Petter Solberg and Sébastien Ogier in the mix in the equally new Citroën DS3 WRC.
Hirvonen led into that final day and despite coming under late pressure, held on to claim a second Rally Sweden win. Solberg slipped to fifth behind Ogier on the powerstage – the first ever in the WRC which Ogier won – as bizarrely co-driver Chris Patterson drove through the stage after Solberg had been caught speeding by local police.
Reigning world champion Sébastien Loeb was never a factor, struggling as the first car on the road on the first day and then picking up two punctures throughout the rally. He was a lonely sixth.
Last month’s Arctic Rally Finland wasn’t the first time the WRC has deviated from Sweden in pursuit of some snowy thrills. In 2007 and ’09, fellow Scandic nation Norway hosted a round of the world championship event which for novelty alone, earns the debut 2007 event a slot on this list.
But the contest on the stages was thrilling and surprising in its own right as Mikko Hirvonen saw the script, read it, and decided to shred it to pieces. Ford’s number one Marcus Grönholm was the WRC’s recognized winner on winter rounds, and indeed comfortably beat third-placed Hirvonen in Sweden that year. But he couldn’t beat his team-mate a week later in Norway.
Hirvonen led from start to finish, blitzing the field by 11.2s on the rally’s first stage, to win his second WRC event and the first in an event-long battle against champions Loeb and Grönholm. Loeb made a mess of his Norwegian adventure however, rolling his Citroën C4 WRC on the second day when lying third, eventually finishing third.
Grönholm tried and tried to overhaul his team-mate, but in the end had to settle second – 9.5s adrift at the finish. “It would be nice to win, but what can we do?” he commented on Hirvonen’s imperious drive.
Local heroes Petter and Henning Solberg enjoyed a squabble over fourth position that eventually went the way of Henning’s Ford Focus RS WRC ’06 despite stalling at the start of the final stage.
By the finish line of Rally Sweden 2001, the big guns – Carlos Sainz aside – were nowhere to be seen near the top of the leaderboard. Peugeot’s brand-new signing Harri Rovanperä scored an unexpected – and never-to-be-repeated – victory.
Pre-event favorites had fallen quickly by the wayside; by the end of the first loop, Peugeot’s main man Marcus Grönholm was eliminated by a water pump failure for the second consecutive rally, while Ford’s Colin McRae and Subaru’s Richard Burns had lost several minutes with trips into snowbanks.
Tommi Mäkinen, who had won the season opener at Monte Carlo, was also nowhere to be seen at the top end of town. Starting first on the road, he went for the slow and steady approach, afraid that finishing high up the order on day one – thus starting early in the road order on day two – would ruin his rally.
With most of the title contenders either delayed or out, Sainz sensed an opportunity. He’d been the first non-Scandinavian to win Rally Finland; maybe he could do the same thing in Sweden? He went for it, breaking away into a 13-second lead at the end of day one.
Unfortunately for Sainz, Mäkinen’s earlier assessment about road position had been correct. Sainz went backwards, quickly.
Rovanperä had caught and passed early rally leader Thomas Rådström – brought in by Mitsubishi as the bankable local ringer – late on the first day. As Sainz failed to keep up with the Nordic cohort, Rovanperä pounced for the lead.
Mäkinen’s tortoise-and-the-hare strategy was paying dividends as he homed in on Rovanperä; by the end of day two, he was only 7.2s off Peugeot’s unexpected lead man.
But Rovanperä would earn this win on merit. Mäkinen had no answer to the former works Seat driver’s pace on the final day, as both Mitsubishis slowly ebbed away from the lead. There was one last roll of the dice from Mäkinen on Hagfors, as he went the other way on tire strategy by taking snow boots as Rovanperä had taken ice tires.
Rovanperä finished the rally on the top step; Mäkinen finished nose-first in a snowbank on the final stage.
Through the ’70s, Anders Kullang became a household name in Swedish rallying – back-to-back Swedish Rally podiums aboard an Opel Kadett GT/E in 1976 and 1977 were enough for that. But the Kadett was never quite a match for the Saab or a well-wheeled Escort.
That all changed in 1980, when the Ascona 400 landed. Kullang posted fourth on the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally but would top the drivers’ championship standings when he landed the biggest win of his life at home a month later. And this was no fluke, consistently quick throughout the rally, he led home a field full of heroes.
With Ford having shut the doors to its Boreham competition department, Hannu Mikkola brought his own Ford Escort RS1800 out and used the David Sutton-run car to good effect, leading early on before slipping back to fourth. Stig Blomqvist’s 99 Turbo moved to the front, only to slip back with a puncture on the Hamra stage on day two.
Right in the mix, Kullang landed himself a lead he wouldn’t let go of. The Karlstad driver arrived back into his home town as a very popular winner – by a minute and a half. Blomqvist had done all he could to get back on terms with the Opel but passing Björn Waldegård’s Fiat 131 Abarth late in the event was as good as it would get for him.
One interesting aspect of the 1980 Swedish was the decision to move the start from Karlstad and south to Stockholm. The FIA had imposed a minimum length for events from the start of the season and the easiest way to comply was to simply shift the start to the capital and factor in a couple of hundred miles of road section.
The rally that confirmed the revolution had arrived. Actually, that’s not exactly right. Nine days after its homologation Franz Wittmann drove the Audi quattro to a 20-minute win on the Jänner Rallye in Austria. Later that month, Hannu Mikkola had whopped the best of the rest to move into a five-minute lead after the first 100 miles of Monte Carlo competition. Unfortunately, the Finn’s foot slipped off the brake pedal, and the car’s left front was rearranged against a bridge parapet.
So, to Sweden. Just one car was dispatched from Ingolstadt – the one being Wittmann’s winner with a bigger turbo. And Mikkola’s result was never in question. This time there were no slip-ups, and the 230 miles of competition was completed almost two minutes quicker than Ari Vatanen’s Ford Escort RS1800.
Admittedly, it wasn’t the massive margin many might have imagined, but the Finn had managed a supremely efficient event, winning at a canter. More importantly, the Audi didn’t miss a beat.
Also of significance, the 1981 event was the first Swedish to be won by a non-Swede since 1950. Worse still for the locals, there wasn’t a sign of the blue and yellow flag on the podium, with Mikkola and Vatanen followed home by countryman Pentti Airikkala in a second Rothmans Escort.
Finnish dominance was one thing, but the ’81 Swedish will be remembered as the rally that changed everything.
Sébastien Ogier wins for Volkswagen. Yawn! Same as always, right?
Not this time.
All seemed by the book early on; Ogier edged ahead of team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala on the first full day, with Latvala hitting back with stage wins on both passes of Finnskogen, leaving the pair almost level. The nearest car that wasn’t a Polo R WRC was 27.1s behind. An easy 1-2-3 beckoned for Volkswagen, surely.
It didn’t last. Torsby turned the rally on its head: Ogier went into a snowbank and lost almost 40s; four corners from the finish while Latvala overcooked a fast right and got sucked into a snowy ditch and stayed there for over eight minutes.
Suddenly it was VW’s youngest charge, Andreas Mikkelsen, in the box seat, though Mads Østberg’s Citroën and Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai lurked behind. So too did Ogier.
“If I know Ogier, he will never give up,” said Mikkelsen moments after inheriting the lead. His assessment was an ominous one.
Ogier was nearly ahead by the half-way mark of day two until a poor run on Vargåsen, giving Mikkelsen a reprieve. Neuville was also homing in and even nipped into a narrow lead heading into the final day. The powerstage offered a mouthwatering prospect; Mikkelsen, Ogier and Neuville covered by only 4.6s heading to the final stage.
Two Polos had already visited snowbanks; unfortunately for Mikkelsen, he made it three at the worst moment imaginable. Running wide, he smacked a bank and got sucked into the snow nose-first. Over 40s were lost, and with it went the rally lead, taken by Ogier.
“This one is a crazy one,” Ogier surmised, seconds after learning of Mikkelsen’s mistake.
We couldn’t agree with you more, Séb.