The snow-covered Rally Sweden is one of the fastest and most spectacular events on the WRC calendar. It’s also one that calls for some very specific skills and preparation.
Here are the biggest challenges the drivers will face this week:
High speed bravery
Despite the slippery conditions, Rally Sweden is one of the fastest rounds of the championship, with an average speed of more than 100 km/h. In 2014, the Rämmen special stage was the fastest section of the rally, with competitors averaging 117.69 km/h. Having the nerve to drive that fast on snow doesn’t come easy, and experience counts for a lot. Three-time winner Jari-Matti Latvala is a perfect example - he started driving on frozen lakes at home in Finland when he was a child.
Tyres and grip
Driving on ice and snow calls for something extra from a tyre, and in the WRC that comes in the form of 380 tungsten-tipped steel studs that protrude 6.5mm from the tread blocks. Sweden is only WRC round where spiked snow tyres are permitted, and with only one spec available there are no complex strategies to consider. The snow tyres are narrower than their asphalt and gravel counterparts, so they press harder onto the road surface, helping the studs to bite into the snow and ice. With the extra metalwork, the tyres generate more grip on the ice and snow than the crews are used to on gravel. The grip is usually very consistent too, which gives drivers plenty of confidence. Modern snow tyres have excellent stud retention, but they can snap off if they are being driven hard on stony ground. If the ice base wears through to the gravel underneath, drivers will need to look after their spikes.
A service-free Friday
Have a problem on Friday, and you’ll most likely have it all day. Most rally days include a midpoint 30-minute service, but the first full day in Sweden comprises a consecutive run of eight stages totalling 124.54 competitive kilometres without a break. Any repairs or maintenance during the leg will be down to the crews, at the roadside, using whatever tools and spares they have on board. Organisers have allocated extra time on the road section before SS6 for crews to fit fresh tyres and lamp pods for the second loop. But that’s it.
Special stages lined by snowbanks are a feature of Rally Sweden and a potential performance advantage for brave drivers. If the banks are solid enough, drivers can lean their cars on them to help them around corners. But it’s a risky strategy. A snowbank that is too soft won’t provide enough support, and will instead slow the car and perhaps drag it in completely. Even a light touch with the front end can prove costly and cooling ducts filled with snow can quickly lead to overheating.
The frozen landscape adds a number of unique challenges to Rally Sweden. Vision can be a problem, especially after fresh snow when everything is white and it can be difficult to read the road ahead. Many drivers wear anti-glare glasses to provide greater definition. Sub-zero temperatures also make it pretty uncomfortable in the cars, and colder drivers will wear heated inner-soles to keep their feet warm. Another Sweden essential is a snow shovel, which must be carried on board every rally car just in case.