The nightmare choice facing Rally Sweden

David Evans examines the tough call facing the organizers of the next WRC round

Thierry Neuville

It’s snowing in Torsby. And it’s cold. Hang on a minute… it’s warming up. It’s raining. And now it’s sunny. It’s spring. Autumn. Every now and then it’s even winter.

One thing it definitely is, is the perennial question about conditions on the World Rally Championship’s so-called winter rally. Round two starts a week on Thursday, but the big question right now is: will it start at all?

I want it to happen. Sweden’s one of my absolute favourites. I’m desperate to spend the next week rummaging around the house looking for those spiky things I fasten to the bottom of my shoes to stop myself looking a complete idiot every time I walk outside.

But we have to be sensible. We have to be practical. Above all, we have to be safe.

Those are the three things Rally Sweden CEO Glenn Olsson has spent the last few weeks thinking about. Who’d be in his shoes? Spiky things on the sole or not, Olsson has to tread very carefully right now.

If he gambles, goes with it and is let down by the weather, Swedish stages softened by weeks of wet weather will be destroyed and his organization could face serious financial consequences in filling the ruts and righting the roads.

Worse still, canceling at this point would be a fiscal disaster as well.

It’s impossible not to feel for the organizers as they face an apparent choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. The frying pan and the fire.

Eyebrows were raised when, in Monte Carlo, Olsson told me the arrival of snow was only strictly necessary to add colour to the picture.

“It is,” he said, “a visual thing.”

Technically, of course, he’s absolutely right. We don’t need snow. In fact, the WRC’s regulation X-Ice North snow tire’s really not a huge fan of powder. It’s at its best when an icing sugar dusting tops a solid ice base. Then it works a treat.

So, give us a deep freeze and, even if it’s dry, the studs can bite and provide lateral and longitudinal grip. The fact the cars look like they’re whizzing through Wales is neither here not there. Round two can run.

Sebastien Ogier - Action

But the snow’s about more than just adding white to black. It’s about the snowbanks. Now, I’m not talking about the safety net of the in-off cornering technique deployed when braking’s been left too late. I’m not even talking about the glorious spectacle of the rooster trail of snow shot skywards as rear quarter connects with another great white wall.

No, I’m talking about the impact the snowbanks have on the style and nature of the rally.

Snowbanks narrow the roads significantly and narrower roads generally lead to lower average speeds. With no snow, some reckon next week’s Rally Sweden could have the winner troubling Kris Meeke’s 2016 Rally Finland record average of 78.68mph for the fastest WRC round ever.

Yes, you’re absolutely right, the drivers remain the ultimate arbiters of their own speed. If they’ve got too much, if they’re not comfortable, they can always come off the gas and bother the middle pedal a bit more often.

Will they do that?


Do the powers that be sometimes have to do that thinking for them?

Yes. Absolutely.

Underpinning any decision Olsson and his team makes right now is the absolute fact that everything could change overnight. Should a beast emerge from the east, dump feet-deep snow on the roads and then descend Scandinavia into the deepest of deep freezes, everything would be right in the World Rally Championship’s winter world.

The odds, I’m told, on that happening are fairly long. Second guessing the weather is folly these days. Yes, it’s going cold. But then it’s going warm. Or is it? Or isn’t it?

Instead, we face the compromise prospect of a shortened rally with single run of stages and the Junior WRC round and historic event being dropped amid miserably muddy conditions.

Currently, no factory team has tested for Rally Sweden. How can they? What’s the point? With test days limited to just 42 per year, no team is willing to risk wasting them on an event that could be dropped. Then there’s the cost of running a World Rally Car for two or three days.

But ultimately the teams haven’t tested because they want to run their cars in something vaguely representative to what they’ll see on the rally. If it runs.

If Olsson goes for it, test teams will be deployed to run in the coming days.

And those tests will be vital to examine stud retention levels in the tires and to discover how much punishment those Michelins and Pirellis can accept from the rocks and ruts they’re usually isolated from by a blanket of snow and ice. If nothing changes with the conditions between here and the start, round two will be a genuine voyage of discovery for everybody.

And that’s before we even think about the recce. I’ll leave you with the most prosaic of problems: what happens if the boys and girls make their notes in dry conditions, then it snows like mad all day Thursday? Snows so hard the stages have to be ploughed. What then? The notes they’ve written can’t be committed to. Sobering thought, that one.

As I said at the top of this column, I love Sweden and always have done. I wish Olsson and his team all the very best as they embark on one of the toughest decisions they’ve had to make in a long time.