Race Watch 4
Rally Sweden 2020
Welcome to Race Watch, a supplementary feature running alongside my blog designed for me to project any opinions that may have arisen from the motorsport events I viewed over the previous weekend.
After the hiatus of last week, #RaceWatch returns with round 2 of the World Rally Championship. The setting was Sweden (with a fair amount of help from neighbouring Norway) and the blanket of puffy white snow the drivers would have to dig their studded tyres into.
Or at least that was the plan. Unseasonably warm weather, due to a combination of factors and not just global warming, had seen large portions of the idyllic, snowy conditions fans are accustomed to transformed into gritty, muddy gravel synonymous with Wales rather than Scandinavia.
This posed a rather serious issue for the event organisers, as the regulations surrounding the event stipulated that solely studded tyres were permitted, and these would rip up any roads that weren’t protected by layers of snow or ice. As a result, the rally was cut considerably short, with just nine stages as opposed to the originally planned 18. Of the 9 that went ahead, the two Torsby Sprint stages were just a fraction of their original lengths, and the Likenas stage on Sunday was run only once rather than twice as planned.
This shortened schedule meant the crews had to push at every moment, taking harsher cuts and faster slides through each corner to maximise the time gains. On some of the fastest roads in WRC, the pace was relentless.
That relentless pace was coming from the wheel-tracks of Elfyn Evans. Elfyn continued the promising pace shown at Monte Carlo by topping the times after the first stage, beating reigning world champion Ott Tanak by 1.1s. Finnish teen sensation Kalle Rovanpera was third, a further 0.9s behind, reminding everyone of the undoubted talent he has, and will only continue to portray as he gets more and more familiar with his new machine.
Monte Carlo winner, and therefore championship leader, Thierry Neuville finished sixth, 4.4 seconds back and 1.5s behind the third Toyota of Seb Ogier in fourth.
The struggle of Neuville continued to be a consistent theme during Friday’s running, as the challenge of being first on the road resulted in finishing positions of just 7th, 8th and 7th in the day’s other stages.
Evans and Tanak certainly were not struggling, however, trading stage victories throughout the day’s proceedings. Ott won stage 2 by 0.9s over Evans, cutting the Welshman’s overall lead to just 0.2 seconds, before it was stretched out again by Evans’ second stage win. Tanak’s time loss on the third stage was such that Rovanpera, who seemed to be clearly the next best driver in the field, jumped into second in the overall classification.
This didn’t last long, though. The final stage of the day saw Ott take his second stage of the rally, whilst Rovanpera’s stall in the first corner dropped him back behind the Estonian. By this point, the lead Evans took into the weekend was 8.5 seconds. Comfortable, although certainly not insurmountable.
Comfortable as it may have been, clearly it wasn’t comfortable enough for Elfyn, as he compounded his advantage over the rest of the field in each of the 4 stages on Saturday. His untouchable nature lead to three of the four stage victories, and his lead at the end of the day was more than double the one he started with. 17.2 seconds and just the solitary Power Stage on day 3 ensured that, barring any major mishaps occurring, Evans had one hand on the Rally Sweden trophy.
Behind him, Tanak had a similar buffer to third, but the battle for that final podium place was heating up. Following third-place finishes on the day’s first two stages, Ogier had climbed above his young Toyota teammate, but the advantage flowed back and forth during the remainder of Saturday’s running. Rovanpera was second in stage 7 and regained his podium place, before the six-time world champion snatched it back on the day’s final course. All this meant just half a second separated the two drivers at opposite ends of their careers.
The only competitor other than Evans and his Yaris to win a stage on day 2 was the championship leader, Neuville. Following another disappointing day for the Hyundai racer he finally found some pace on the last stage, eclipsing Ogier’s time by just 0.3s. However, I’m sure this would have been nothing more than a slight consolation for the Belgian, who languished sixth in the overall classification, behind the three Toyota’s, Tanak and the Ford Fiesta of Esapekka Lappi.
The final day saw the solitary completion of the Power Stage, where extra championship points are up for grabs for the fastest 5 finishers. And with a point to prove and a podium place to fight for, it was Rovanpera who took the spoils, completing the course 3.7s quicker than Neuville, who was in desperate need of the bonus points to consolidate his position in the championship. Third was Ogier, fourth was Tanak and Lappi took the one point available for finishing fifth in the stage.
The rally winner completed the stage in the sixth best time. After cruising through the stage, ensuring nothing went wrong, Elfyn Evans completed the rally 12.7s faster than Tanak, claiming just his second WRC win. For his co-driver Scott Martin, it was a maiden victory, and one that surely cements their place in the championship title fight. After their third place in Monte, supplemented by 2 Power Stage points in that rally, the pairing move onto 42 championship points.
They only lead the championship by countback, however. Thierry Neuville’s 4 Power Stage points also moved him onto 42 championship points, but his second-best finish of 6th here is not as good as Evans’ 3rd in Monaco, placing him second in the championship. Ogier and Rovanpera make it three Toyota’s in the top 4, whilst Tanak’s title defence has finally made a start, as he is now fifth after two events. Moving into Mexico next month brings us to what is the first official gravel rally of the season, even if Sweden this weekend was pretty gritty. Mexico last year brought Ogier’s second win from three events, yet he has only been victorious once in 12 since. Can he end his barren run, or can Evans build on a confidence-boosting first two rallies? Maybe Tanak will bring home his first Hyundai win? Let me know your predictions in the comments below!
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