Why Rally Sweden brings out the best in the WRC

The winter rally experience puts a smile on everyone's faces, writes James Bowen


I’ve never seen so many smiling faces in one day.

The day in question is Wednesday. Specifically, last Wednesday, the day before Rally Sweden got underway.

I’d been in the country for nearly 24 hours, having landed in Stockholm on Tuesday morning then endured a gruelling, 10-hour drive north to rally HQ in Umeå in what, at times, were blizzard conditions.

As Wednesday morning dawned, the sum total of my Swedish experience had been an international airport, a Volvo hire car, several petrol stations and a rather unusual tapas restaurant where the world’s smallest beef burger had failed to provide the sustenance I’d hoped for. Not exactly a trip to write home about.


Umeå delivered an abundance of snow and ice, perfect winter rally conditions

What happened next changed all that.

Driving north of Umeå, out into the countryside where the majority of the rally would take place, you’re immediately hit by the sense of other-worldliness. The phrase ‘winter wonderland’ had, to me, previously meant a few amusement rides and a dodgy-looking ice skating rink in London’s Hyde Park. Now, it had a whole new meaning.

The definition of the landscape is almost totally lost beneath the thick blanket of snow, you simply can’t tell what is road, what is path, hill or river; the scenery is a homogenous blur of white, save for the odd evergreen tree piercing the snow and the occasional flash of deep blue sky.

To some, it’s something of a bleak scene. But to a rally driver, it’s the perfect playground.

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We're in Sweden, right? Viktor's flags would suggest otherwise

Like most WRC events, Wednesday was the final day of the recce in Sweden – a day which offers the DirtFish crew the opportunity to head into the stages to catch up with the stars of the event as they completed their practice runs.

As we arrived at our stage of choice, Colin Clark, Eliot Barnard and I were greeted by a sea of Norwegian flags, a roaring fire, and a lovely man called Viktor.

Viktor is a larger-than-life character and a proper rally man – a fact he emphasized by camping in this frozen wilderness to catch sight of the cars and crews. Last week was Viktor’s 26th Rally Sweden. What a character, chatting and laughing and listening to his stories, we almost missed the arrival of the recce cars.

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Old friends: Viktor and Colin enjoy a catch up before the drivers arrive

Then, Viktor unveiled his ‘hat of champions’ – a baseball cap in Norwegian colors, which he was determined to get signed by all World Rally Champions present in Sweden. All the champions… and Oliver Solberg.

Right on cue, the son of the 2003 World Rally champion pulled up. Colin Clark approached, microphone in hand, but Viktor wasn’t in the mood to wait in line. The Solberg superfan pounced, and the voice of rally himself was muscled out of the way by a shouting man wielding a red, white and blue hat and a sharpie.

It was comedy gold and, for me, my first classic Rally Sweden story.

A delighted Viktor got his signature, but he wasn’t the only one smiling that day. In fact, everybody we met couldn’t seem to contain their enthusiasm. Umeå was overrun with rally fever, as were the crews.

Recce interviews offer a unique insight into a driver’s mindset. They are caught somewhat off-guard, in the midst of making pacenotes, far away from the team PRs and the pressures of being in the heat of competition. It’s these moments where we get a much truer reflection of how they’re feeling, their deeper thoughts.

One by one, they stopped, they rolled down their window and they revealed an enormous grin. Conditions were perfect for a winter rally – or so it seemed at the time – and every driver seemed genuinely thrilled to be in Sweden and ready to compete.

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Kalle Rovanperä was loving being back in the WRC, and in Sweden

Competing on snow and ice is something most drivers only experience once a year. It makes Sweden an event like no other. The sensation of throwing the car into a corner at 120mph on a surface that, in theory, should offer zero grip, leaning on the snowbanks and emerging on the other side at barely diminished speed is something that clearly never gets old, and certainly never gets boring.

Add in the passion from fans like Viktor, the brilliant atmosphere inside the Red Barn Arena every night, and the fabulous hospitality from the host town of Umeå, and it’s easy to see why smiles were pretty much a permanent fixture on everyone’s faces over the weekend, myself included.

There’s just something about Rally Sweden that brings out the best in the WRC.