LATVALA MUST STRIKE BACK IN SWEDEN
WARM SWEDEN PROVIDES CREWS WITH TOUGH TEST WRC PREVIEW
Ask any driver about the feeling for driving in Sweden and you’ll get the same reply. No words. Just a grin. A very big grin.
As the World Rally Championship descends on Karlstad, hopes of going a gear higher and leaning on the snowbanks melt away. The absence of winter in the Varmland – translated literally as the warm land – means a complete rethink on the way this event is tackled.
“When the conditions are not so good, it’s a different rally,” said Jari-matti Latvala, a driver who knows all about success in this part of the world – only Stig Blomqvist and Marcus Gronholm have won it more times than he has.
“I tested for this event in Are, in the north of Sweden and we had really good conditions. Perfect conditions for the rally, we have a lot of snow and good ice. But when we are coming south to Karlstad, we have to remember that the roads are very different this week and this will change the way we set the car up.”
When winter’s in town, the average World Rally Car will run a stiff, razorsharp set-up offering pinpoint accuracy on turn-in. It’s all change when it warms up.
“You have to run the car much softer,” Latvala told MN. “You will have a lot of slush around and the car will be jumping in and out of the ruts, you can’t get the confidence or the traction if the car is too stiff. This was always in the back of the mind when we were testing at the weekend.”
It’s not just the set-up of the hardware which needs a reboot, either. The approach to the stages is different in the absence of snow.
“The snowbanks do let you go into the corner harder and faster,” said Latvala, “and the feeling is really nice when you can lean the car on the bank on the exit – all of the time you know you are taking more speed than you could normally. The mindset when the snowbank is there is really different. But you always have to be careful that the snowbank doesn’t collapse and pull the car in.” Not much chance of that this week… “Sometimes, a lot of snow can actually make the road slower,” Latvala added. “If you are clearing a lot of snow from the surface then that can make it difficult to find grip, but also the snowbanks – when they are big – they can alter the nature of the corner and make the road a little bit more narrow, which also slows you down.
“When you don’t have the snow, but you do have ice, then the speed is definitely higher. The second run at some of these stages will be quite tough this week, but when we have patchy ice and gravel, the truth is that we will get some of the best grip ever from the studded tyres. The only trouble is that this grip will only last for 12 miles and then all of the studs will be out of the tyre and you only have rubber. This is OK when you are in the soft gravel, but when you do come to a patch of ice under braking for a corner, it can be so hard to get it stopped and turned in.”
Not even snow flurries will help, either, according to Latvala.
“The trouble with a little bit of snow is that it covers things at the side of the road,” he said. “So you go to make the cut in the corner and you find a rock has been covered by snow. When the condition is like this, you have to be so careful – you just have to keep the car in the middle of the road; don’t slide wide because you can hit the rock on the outside as well. I remember in 2005, we had conditions like this and we had a lot of punctures and suspension damage on a lot of the top cars.”
The Volkswagen-driving Finn will need to put all of the above into practice this week, if he’s to avoid handing his series-leading, title-defending team-mate Sebastien Ogier an even bigger advantage.
“I know I need a result in Sweden,” said Latvala. “The one thing which not scoring points in Monte Carlo should have done is give me a better position on the road in Sweden this week. I’m not sure that will happen. If the weather stays as it is, then the road could get worse the further down the order you start.”
Latvala was enormously frustrated by this event last year, having won it the year before.
“I couldn’t get comfortable with the 2015 car in Sweden,” he said. “I made some changes and was much happier on the final day, but by then I had already gone off the road. I couldn’t get the car how I wanted it in Mexico or Argentina either, it was only when I got to Portugal that it really worked for me. Now, I know I am comfortable in the car and I can take a lot of confidence from that this week.”
Big coat or no coat? Winter boots or flipflops? In between typing these words, these are questions I’m faced ahead of this week’s big trip north to Sweden and Norway.
The world of twitter and social media made for a pretty miserable place last weekend as more and more pictures of sodden, snow-free stages found their way into cyberspace, seemingly condemning the Swedish organisers for not being able to turn the temperature down…
At the moment, that temperature could still tumble mid-week giving the deep-freeze needed to deliver solid and sustainable ice for the weekend. If that doesn’t happen, there’s really not much appetite for the revised itinerary on offer right now.
If the conditions don’t improve and the event does run, it’ll be a mud bath and an embarrassing one at that. That’s all bad enough for the organisers and the competitors, but the wider implication comes via WRC Promoter – how can Oliver Ciesla sell a snow rally with no snow?
The age-old tag line of the WRC taking crews from the depths of a frozen Scandinavian winter to the blistering heat of a Sardinian summer won’t really cut it this year. Not when it’s colder in London than the service park in Karlstad. And, right now, it’s pretty warm in London.
Just before we turn our guns on the Swedish organisers, full of sympathy for the promoter and a potentially less than satisfactory offering to Channel 5, let’s give some consideration to the economic implications for the rally itself. A significant chunk of money has already been laid out implementing the infrastructure of the event and calling it off will hit an already hard-up bunch very, very hard. Cancelling the rally could send the organisers under, while running it would mean a crippling repair bill for the roads and could give the same eventual outcome.
I suspect rally boss Glen Olsson tired years ago of the helpful suggestion of taking the rally north. That’s been considered, but Olsson says it’s too pricey and still not snow-sure.
I can confirm the pricey bit. Without being too much of a name-dropper, I went for a beer in Are with Carlos Sainz and Carlos Sainz Jr while we were all racing around frozen lakes in Richard Tuthill’s Porsches. It was eye-wateringly expensive, but very swish and very cool. Freezing, in fact.
There’s plenty of sympathy on offer this week, but while the organisers and promoters way up the pros and potential costs, let’s spare a thought for Craig Breen.
The Irishman stands on the verge of realising his lifelong dream of driving a World Rally Championship round for a frontline works team. He’s got the keys, but they could still be taken off him.
Like all of his WRC colleagues, Breen and his co-driver Scott Martin are sitting in a hotel room waiting to find out if they’ll go to work this week.
The upside for Craig is that he’ll get another go. Question is: will Rally Sweden?
Victory on Saturday’s Finnskog Rally has helped put Mads Ostberg in the best possible position to challenge for his first Rally Sweden success this week, according to the Norwegian.
Ostberg dominated the Norwegian championship round in an Adapta Team Ford Fiesta R5. He now equals Henning Solberg’s record of four Finnskog wins.
Most importantly to Ostberg was how his relationship developed with new co-driver Ola Floene. Ostberg struggled with a change of language (from Swedish to Norwegian) and note delivery on the opening round in Monte Carlo, but he said it worked well on Saturday.
“It’s always fun to race in Norway,” he said. “It’s fun to stand as the most winning driver on the biggest event in Norway. But, most importantly, this