Rally Sweden is the only true winter round of the season – and therein lies one of its biggest challenges as drivers have limited opportunity to experience a cocktail of low temperatures, ice, snow and frozen dirt on studded tyres.
A couple of days testing following Rallye Monte-Carlo is the only preparation they might have before firing up their engines for shakedown. The really lucky ones might have squeezed in a few kilometres before Christmas.
And once the rally ends the studded rubber will be packed away, the heated driving boots will be switched off and the alarming range of headwear sported in the service park will be thrown into the suitcase until next year.
So how does driving in the frozen wastes differ from elsewhere? Let Citroen’s Mads Ostberg explain.
“You must be careful with tyre wear and judging braking points, stay on the lines with no oversteering, and smooth and progressive on the throttle to ensure you keep the line through the corner. This is where you find the most grip but at the same time you wear the studs in the gravel, so you need to do it in a sensible way,” he said.
Not too much to think about then……
“There are many different ways of driving. One of my ways is to be more sideways so you can go earlier on the throttle. To get down to the grip in the ice, you must spin through the snow on top and to do that you must go early on the throttle,” he explained.
The irony about Sweden is that the season’s most slippery outing generates one of the quickest rallies. Speeds are high thanks to the amazing grip provided by the 384 studs inserted into each tyre to bite into the frozen road.
But when the snow is soft and the roads are not as frozen, traction is not so simple. Exposed gravel rips the tungsten-tipped spikes from their mountings and grip levels are about the same as walking on an ice rink in flip-flops.
And if the forecasts coming out of Sweden are to be believed, soft snow and little much ice beneath is what we are in for next week.
So managing the tyres early in a loop so there are sufficient spikes remaining for the final few kilometres will be key.
Drivers talk about perfect winter conditions – but what are they?
Well, snow banks lining the roads are essential, allowing drivers to keep their right foot on the power for as long as possible. They know if they leave their braking a fraction too late, they can ‘lean’ their car on a bank to guide it round the corner.
But if it’s not super cold – and temperatures in Sweden can drop to -30°C – then that snow is not as hard as drivers would like. The result? The bank crumbles, the car is sucked in and it’s time to get the shovels out.
Spare a thought also for the poor mechanics forced to lie in the cold as they grapple to undo a recalcitrant bolt with frozen fingers.
Trying to complete a routine service when the clock is counting down and all eyes are focused like lasers on your hands is the stuff of nightmares for them. And remember – these guys are the best in the world at their job.