OGIER HOLDS HIS NERVE IN SWEDEN
HAILS ONE OF HIS FINEST
Descending through the cloud cover going towards Stockholm, reality bites. It’s like rain on your wedding day.
It’s green, not white. Not even a bit white. For 24 hours, counsel had been courted. Overwhelming feeling? Stay at home. It won’t happen.
It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take.
In the days before Rally Sweden, half-empty glasses of Chardonnay littered Karlstad bars. Black flies abound. Ironic.
Everything was ironic. Pirelli’s announcement of an all-new Sottozero ice tyre, just as the last frozen fragment of central Sweden melted. Karlstad’s own symbol is a smiling sun, reflecting its statistical standing as one of the country’s sunniest places. The word ‘Varmland’ on the doors of every rally car; Varmland is the region this festival of supposed snow and ice runs in. The translation’s not complicated. Warmland. Spring sprung just as the World Rally Championship arrived for its winter round. A little too ironic. The organisers had worried for a week. Eight nights before the WRC landed, this part of Scandinavia had been in the grip of a deep, deep freeze. Minus 30 and snowfall measured in feet not inches had answered their annual prayers. A day later, it warmed up. Then it warmed up again. It wouldn’t stop getting warmer.
The snow slipped away, taking with it the perfect, pure white canvas on which this year’s production was supposed to be painted. Sweden became Wales; white woods turned deep, evergreen forests.
The roads? They turned to mud and mush. The first of many rally week meetings slashed eight stages from the itinerary, but the organisers came under real pressure to knock the thing on its head. The drivers splashed their way through the recce to warn of what they felt was a very real and present safety implication.
And when they felt they weren’t being listened to, the drivers and co-drivers assembled themselves in a chilly multi-storey car park in the centre of Karlstad at 0600hrs last Friday.
The plan was simple: skip the first stage, go straight to the next one. All agreed? All agreed. What’s that Hayden Paddon? You’re going into the first stage. Er…
Ready for the real irony. Forced to concede the Thursday night spectator pleaser around Karlstad’s trotting track, the organisers were determined to keep some element of winter in the opening ceremony. Somebody was sent out to source truckloads of snow for the snowmobile display.
It worked: the snowmobiles flew.
Twelve hours later, it was wall-to-wall snow. Winter came back.
The stage most of the manufacturer drivers were determined to skip, Torsby, provided a solid ice base after countless volunteers pulled an all-nighter to provide their heroes with a stage suitable for them to perform on.
Struggling to stand on inch-deep ice at the end of the 10-miler, the wind picked up and a blizzard blew in. Sweden aped Siberia. Ironically, we had a rally on. There was nothing predictable about last week. Actually, that’s not quite true is it?
For 12 years now, predictability in the World Rally Championship has come via one word: Sebastien. Predictably, a French Seb was the master of what, for a while, looked to be a total disaster.
Well watered, winter was left to work on Torsby. The result? A solid ice island between grassy banks. The lack of snow opened the drivers’ eyes to just how fast this rally could be. For the first time in years, they could see into ditches, slide wide in confidence, knowing for sure there was no stone waiting for them. Burying anything beneath a snowbank is impossible without snow…
Fastest by three tenths of a second from his team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen, Ogier was on a mission as he headed for the border and his team-mate’s backyard.
It’s no exaggeration to say Norway was something of a saviour for Rally Sweden this year. Running at a higher latitude, not to mention four times the altitude. Admittedly, 450 metres is nothing compared with the French Alps of round one or the 2,500-metre plus Sierras awaiting us in Guanajuato next month, but it was better than being 100 metres above Swedish sea level.
Between them Rojden and Svullrya provided 53 miles of good ice and solid winter. Ahead of the rally, these were the only two stages Ogier said the organisers should run. A short, sprint event was his recommendation on the eve of the start.
From the moment the recce was put back a day, clerk of the course Stig Rune Kjernsli was making it up as he went along. As Khalid Al-qassimi’s co-driver Chris Patterson put it: “You wouldn’t want to play poker with this man.”
Kjernsli and rally CEO Glen Olsson put everything on the line to a backdrop of disharmony and disquiet. They gambled on the weather, faced down the dissenters and narrowly avoided financial oblivion while creating a brilliant rally on the hoof.
Having turned Torsby around and enjoyed Norway, a weekend on more southerly stages in Sweden came into view. Continued snow completed the winter white scene and created a captivating Saturday.
Ogier was never headed through day one, but he was riding his luck. He rattled the Polo into the trees, aquaplaning off the road in a highspeed right-hander in Svullrya.
Having ploughed plenty of snow and won last year’s event, he was more than man enough for the task this time around.
A close battle for second was headed by Hayden Paddon, seven places further back on the road.
“He will have a big advantage if it keeps on snowing,” warned Ogier as the cars arrived back in Karlstad at the end of a cross-border day.
“I need all the help I can get,” countered the Kiwi, running a New Generation i20 for the first time.
A stage win on the day-closing return to Torsby had helped build Paddon’s confidence. Seeing more snow falling into the night would help even more.
Even if snow expert and third-placed man Mads Ostberg might have spoiled all the fun.
“We have seen how much it hurts to be first on the road if it snows on the Swedish,” said the chirpy Norwegian. “And, for sure, Ogier will find it hard tomorrow, but it’s not as bad as if the snow had been falling on ice – then he would really struggle; the snow slips on the ice below. Tomorrow, the ground beneath the snow won’t be frozen – the snow will insulate it – and he will be able to dig down and get some grip from the gravel.”
There you have it. Mads’ guide to the sort of snow that slips on ice as opposed to insulating snow. Into Saturday. Only the Vargasen stage was run twice on day two (this, undoubtedly, had plenty to do with the mass of corporate hospitality centred on Colin’s Crest). Return trips to Fredriksberg and Rammen were canned in fear of the astronomical bills to put right what would be deeply ploughed public roads.
Fredriksberg was first up. Ogier pushed. Following his leader into the finish, Mikkelsen laughed at the marks he’d left.
“He is everywhere,” said Mikkelsen. “He is going so quick, so hard. The lines are going to the ditch, everything. He’s pushing like hell…”
Five quicker than Paddon, Ogier’s lead was up to 32.4s.
This was classic Ogier territory. Every now and then the Gap driver takes everything up a level. It’s what champions do, they have an extra per cent or two tucked away, deployable only when the going gets a bit tougher. Last Saturday was that day. Vargasen was Ogier’s nightmare and nemesis. The day’s most westerly stage was full of snow and his Polo would double as a high-speed shovel for the cars following.
Just under four miles in and Paddon was 5.9s up. Next split, at almost 10 miles… 15.7s had been lost the South Islander’s way. End of the stage? A total of 23.6s in 15.35 miles. Ogier had shipped a second every 1000 metres. That was almost unheard of.
He was completely calm. He didn’t get mardy. Didn’t shout or curse the running order. He simply said his piece: admitted he might lose a lot to Paddon, pulled his cans on, flicked the Volkswagen into first and headed to the other side of Hagfors for Rammen.
He then politely ignored much of the service park as it plotted his downfall in the next snow-filled test.
And, the way the white stuff was still falling, it had to be more of the same. Didn’t it?
Paddon had heard the same. “It sounds like there’s a fair bit of snow in the next one,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the next stage – it’s one of
favourites. We’ve got this advantage we need to use it.” similar speed in the 14-mile Rammen stage would have Paddon exiting with about a 14-second lead
Ogier. Vargasen second time through would offer nothing like the same reward as in the morning, but the
still favoured the Hyundai man to tickle a little bit more out of the day.
The cancellation of the Lesjofors stage on Sunday left just a 10-mile powerstage; everything looked to be falling into place for Paddon. With fresh Michelins beneath him, weapon was sharp as he headed for a very big afternoon. Not far off the line into Rammen, he knew the game was up. This wasn’t going to be his day.
knew it wasn’t going to work,” Paddon sighed later. “There just wasn’t anything like the snow in there. And, be honest, we needed the conditions were never going to beat him speed alone.” Continued on page 22
Ogier won despite an early accident
Kiwi Paddon was a star of the event