As mottos go, it’s not entirely accurate. Not this year, anyway. Right now, Rally Sweden can’t really claim to be ‘Closer to Rally’.
Event CEO Glenn Olsson and his Torsby-based team are in the agonizing position of watching a beloved partner step out, sign up and swipe right on a dating app.
The World Rally Championship has fallen head over heels for the powder snow and nice ice on offer in Finnish Lapland and next week the series’ winter rally runs outside of Sweden or Norway for the first time. For many, the Arctic tie-in has been a long time coming. And why wouldn’t it?
Winter in and around Rovaniemi really means what it says. It’s cold, white and dark. The start of the WRC’s winter adventure in 2021 will compare starkly with how we signed off on 2020.
Remember the rain that wreaked havoc with Likenäs? So warm and wet were the conditions on the final day that the 12-miler was only run once. Winter it wasn’t.
What’s vital here, however, is that we remember it’s not Torsby’s winter credentials under the microscope. Rally Sweden was canned in December due to rising coronavirus numbers in the country.
Olsson told us at the time: “Rally Sweden organisers, the FIA and WRC Promoter fully understand that the health of the local population is of primary concern and are committed to a collective duty of care to protect both the Värmland community and the WRC family.
“During our planning, we have closely monitored what is a constantly evolving COVID-19 situation in the region. While we are naturally extremely disappointed, especially given the exciting new-look itinerary, this is a decision we support.”
That’s why the WRC didn’t decamp in what are – ironically – some of the best winter conditions in years in and around Torsby last week.
Round two was shipped to Finland a fortnight later because of the pandemic.
It will be back in Sweden next year.
But not back in Torsby.
Asked for his thoughts on seeing his WRC round run elsewhere Olsson was quite clear on Rally Sweden’s position.
“We have a contract with WRC Promoter for 2022 and we are discussing the location.”
There is sympathy for Rally Sweden – especially when you see a motto morphed into ‘Closer to the love of Rally’ and the pictures of such classics as Vargåsen and Rojden – but there’s also a harder line than ever that once the series has enjoyed a taste of the perfect winter next week, anything less won’t be tolerated.
FIA rally director Yves Matton told DirtFish: “We were very clear last year when we were there with the [FIA] president Jean Todt: we don’t want anymore to be in the same conditions [as last year].
“We don’t want to be struggling like we were struggling last year and if you want to have an event in the future you have to find a solution to have a proper snow rally.
“Now we are awaiting their proposal for the future to have a proper snow rally. We know we have some alternatives, like what we will do in Finland this year, but that doesn’t mean I’m not able to make a proposal for a 2022 based on a rally [Sweden] where we will all be convinced that we will have the proper conditions that we expect for the snow rally that we have in the championship.”
Matton: “We will not go back there, for sure. We need to be north for a snow rally. It’s the only way to be confident that we will have the proper conditions. We expect from them to have a proposal for a proper snow rally, based in the north.”
Like the rest of us, the Belgian is deeply grateful at the job Arctic Rally Finland has achieved in running its Finnish Rally Championship qualifier last month before starting work on the WRC’s second round immediately afterwards. And it’s clearly difficult for him to see past this pandemic-enforced Rally Sweden pause being anything other than a weather-focused staging post.
“This is really a proper demonstration that in challenging times we can have a good achievement, if I can say it like that,” Matton went on to say.
“We have been fighting in Sweden for a couple of years about snow, we know that going to Arctic Rally we will have snow and we will have proper conditions for a snow event. It shows that in challenging times, we can actually, all together, create things.
“And I’m really confident [for Arctic Rally Finland]. For sure, it will be a short event, but we will have proper conditions. Last year we had a long event that finished short and without proper conditions. At least this year we will have a short event with proper conditions.”
Now more than ever, the message is to move or lose.
Olsson’s more keenly aware of that than anybody else. And, if we’re brutally honest, the last thing he needs right now is Rovaniemi fluttering its frozen roads and sensational snowbanks before the WRC’s decision-makers.
M-Sport Ford team principal Richard Millener is a man who understands the effort which goes into putting a rally on at the highest level.
“You’ve got to give credit to Sweden,” he said. “In some ways maybe this is a small blessing that they can concentrate fully on finding a new location for 2022. As much as these organizers came in over the last year to create these new events, I think it’s unfair if we don’t respect the events that have been there a long time, because they do a lot for the sport.
“After losing its round because of the pandemic, it wouldn’t be fair to say: ‘Well, we’ll go to Arctic and then forget about them.’”
But Arctic Rally Finland is a solid sub.
“I think Arctic will be a great rally,” continued Millener. “We know it’ll be really good conditions and we’re looking forward to that.”
The drivers are going to be the chief beneficiaries next week. Every driver loves a proper winter rally; the chance to feel the studs bite beneath them and then widen the line by leaning on the snowbanks. More often than not in the last decade, those conditions have been compromised in Sweden.
“We’ve struggled quite often in recent years in Sweden with a lack of snow and it shouldn’t be an issue this time, going up north so that should provide a very nice playground for us. Arctic Rally should be nice,” said three-time Rally Sweden winner Sébastien Ogier.
His Toyota team-mate Kalle Rovanperä is already an Arctic Rally winner from last year, but he’s also the son of a Sweden winner too.
“I think Rally Sweden is a nice event for sure,” said the Finn. “It’s also been in the calendar for a really long time. In the last few years there is always not so much winter condition, lots of gravel and like last year, no snow, so if we have the option to drive a proper winter rally with the [right] conditions, it’s always better.”
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, who contested Estonia’s Otepää Winter Rally last week, is also looking forward to a return of proper snow in the WRC.
“I think we’re going to have a lot of snow there, proper snow rally conditions, so it’s the conditions we’ve wanted to see for many years now and which we were missing,” he added.
“I don’t want to call it a good change because I think the Sweden organiser overall has done an incredible job to host the event and it’s definitely among the most professional ones.
“But the conditions weren’t the conditions we should have for snow events. Now, I think, we’re going to find a real proper snow event.”
Rovaniemi will raise the bar in terms of conditions next week, but Sweden’s relationship with the WRC is in its own hands. The next date – Rally Sweden, 2022 – will decide the future of a marriage made in 1973.