The C3 WRCs Head For Swedish Winter Wonderland
The second round of the World Rally Championship and the only event on the WRC calendar exclusively contested on snow and ice, Rally Sweden is something of an exercise in tightrope walking. To bolster its efforts to perform well in Scandinavia, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT is entering a third C3 WRC for Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen, in addition to the usual crews of Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle and Craig Breen/Scott Martin.
A BALANCING ACT
It could be said that Sweden is to rallying what the Winter Olympics is to skiing: an iconic, unmissable event and the ultimate test in winter conditions, where the speeds reached are at least as high as the skill levels required behind the wheel. The perseverance of the Scandinavian drivers and their dominance at the event was stopped for the first time by Citroën and the Loeb-Elena crew (Xsara WRC) in 2004. An achievement matched by only one other non-Nordic driver since. Needless to say, Nordic drivers still have an advantage on paper, particularly due to their greater experience in these specific grip conditions. This is why it is important for Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT to have one in its line-up for this event, as Mads Østberg joins Kris Meeke and Craig Breen, the team's usual standard bearers.
The Norwegian knows Citroën well, having scored seven podiums as a works driver for the team between 2014 and 2015. In Sweden, his reputation is not only limited to his gravity-defying leaps over Colin’s Crest, the famous jump on the Vargasen stage, he has also finished as runner-up in 2011 and claimed four other podium finishes since then (3rd in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016). However, Kris Meeke and Craig Breen can equally make a good case for themselves, building on the haul of points racked up by the team in Monte-Carlo. Kris was among the frontrunners on only his third appearance at the event in 2016, whilst Craig has competed here five times – his best result being fifth place in 2017 – and really enjoys the specific difficulties of this very unusual event.
A MORE TECHNICAL COURSE FOR 2018
This year, just under a quarter of the course has been changed compared with last year's event. However, only a little over five kilometres of the Torsby stage are completely new, whilst the ten or so different kilometres on Hagfors, as well as the Torntop stage, were already used in 2013 and 2014 respectively. One significant new element, however, is the large snow banks that look set to line the stages this year. This is likely to affect not only the width of the roads but also the angles at which the cars tackle the corners, and therefore the pace notes. In recent years, mild weather during the rally has meant crews have become used to avoiding the packed snow lining the roads. This time, they will need to make greater use of the snow banks in order to exit the corners with as much speed as possible. It will be a great challenge, where experience may play a key role, and which should provide plenty of excitement and action.
2018 RALLY SWEDEN KEY FIGURES
• 19 timed stages covering a total of 314,25 km
• 23.9 % of the competitive distance is different to 2017
• One win claimed by Citroën and the Loeb-Elena crew at Rally Sweden (2004 in a Xsara WRC)
• 85mph (137.8 kph) average speed on the quickest stage contested this time last year
A RALLY, A CHALLENGE
Looking after your studded tyres
Two centimetres narrower that their gravel equivalent, and a full five centimetres narrower than the tarmac version, Michelin's "Sweden" tyre mainly stands out due to the 384 studs glued into drilled holes on the tyre tread. The studs provide such a high level of grip that at equivalent speeds, the braking distances are the same as on dry tarmac! The challenge in Sweden therefore consists of taking great care of these twenty millimetre-long spikes, which protrude around seven millimetres from the tread blocks. The Scandinavian rally is also one of the few events where taking two spare wheels, especially on the second pass when gravel begins to appear and lines form, actually helps performance. The challenge is to switch tyres at the right moment, so that the studs wear out evenly, and to avoid having an uneven tyre set-up.
Kevin Struyf, Race Engineer: “I remember the 2014 Rally Sweden – it was only Mads Østberg's second race in the team and I was his race engineer. We were expecting a lot from his expertise on this event and we had prepared well by taking part in the Mountain Rally in Norway, in addition to pre-event testing. Discussions proved to be constructive and we had made quite a few changes based on his feedback, especially to the differential set-up. Mads gradually improved throughout the rally, finishing strongly on the Sunday to take a fine third place, just 5.9s behind the runner-up. He also set two fastest times, one on the Torntop stage that is back on the itinerary this year and one on the Power Stage."
Pierre Budar, Citroën Racing Team Principal: "Given the speeds reached, you need confidence behind the wheel to produce fast times in Sweden. The purpose of the tests currently being held is to get our crews in the best possible shape for the rally, whilst taking advantage of road conditions that are closer to those we will encounter next week. With the addition of Mads Østberg, who has five podiums at this event, we have certainly strengthened the team, especially as experience is critical here given the very limited number of kilometres covered on this surface every year. I also have high hopes that Kris, who was fighting at the front in 2016, and Craig, who knows the event well, can show just how much our C3 WRC has improved since last year's rally."
Christophe Besse, Technical Director: “Since February 2017, a lot of work has been done on the suspension geometry and the damper system, torque distribution between the axles, and the set-up of the centrally-controlled differential. These changes have already proven effective on gravel. The aim, therefore, will be to do the same thing on this unusual course, where you need to be on the pace straight away because the gaps are always very small. We will also need to see what influence the starting order has on the times. Our four days of testing have been organised in such a way that Mads runs third, after Kris and Craig, so that he can use their basic set-up to get his bearings in the C3 WRC as quickly as possible. Kris and Craig will then drive again so that they can then potentially take advantage of his specialist feedback.”
Kris Meeke: "It looks like we're going to get perfect winter conditions this year and like all the WRC drivers, I can't wait to get started. In the last few seasons, with a limited amount of snow, you had to be very cautious or risk getting stuck in a snow bank after the slightest impact. The snow banks seem to be bigger and more compact this time around, so we'll undoubtedly be able to drive more aggressively and use the banks more, although we may need a bit of time to get used to that. In any event, it's an exciting challenge that I'm going to try and tackle with the same sensible approach as in Monte-Carlo."
Number of appearances at the event: 4
Best result: 7th (2015)
Craig Breen: "Between the start and end of last season, the C3 WRC made a lot of progress on gravel, so I hope it'll be the same on snow and ice. Especially as Sweden is one of my favourite rallies, and one where I feel really confident. In fact, I had my very first race in a WRC here in 2014 and also made my maiden appearance in Sweden with Citroën Racing in 2016. After a difficult Monte, I'd love to get decent points on the board. It looks like the road conditions will be perfect for this year's rally, with really solid snow banks that are forgiving if you make a relatively minor mistake."
Number of appearances at the event: 5
Best result: 5th (2017)
Mads Østberg: "Rally Sweden is a special event for me and I have always been quick here, so I'm very happy to have this opportunity to rejoin the team. I'm hoping to make the most of the shakedown at Satory and then the day of pre-event testing to adapt quickly to the C3 WRC. In any case, I'm already up to speed in these conditions, having contested two winter rallies in Norway, the second of which I won. With the bigger snow banks this year, the roads are likely to be narrower and more technically demanding, so perhaps we Scandinavians may be able to take advantage of our greater experience in conditions like these."
Number of appearances at the event: 11
Best result: 2nd (2011)