As the competitive action crossed the border into his native Norway, Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team’s Mads Østberg maintained a strong pace to claim his third successive podium in Rally Sweden today. The second round of the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) also proved fruitful for Qatar World Rally Team’s Thierry Neuville and Juho Hänninen who displayed flashes of speed to secure fifth and sixth places respectively with Østberg’s team-mate, Evgeny Novikov, recovering from a roll in ninth.
Continuing M-Sport’s illustrious form on the snow-covered stages, the outfit’s range of Ford Fiesta rally cars dominated the top-ten. Seven M-Sport built Fiestas scored points on this weekend’s event. Not only did Østberg claim a podium in the WRC, but Yazeed Al-Rajhi put in a sensational performance as he piloted his Ford Fiesta RRC to victory – and tenth place overall – in the WRC-2 series.
Looking to battle for victory, Østberg’s campaign on the snow-covered stages got off to a difficult start. With his Ford Fiesta RS WRC suffering a water leak on Friday’s first stage (SS2), the Norwegian was forced to turn mechanic on the liaison to SS3. Incurring a 20-second penalty for a late check-in due to his delays, the team’s young charge found himself on the back-foot for the remainder of the rally.
Yet ever determined, Østberg proved that his technical skills are just as effective as his skills behind the wheel and ushered in a resurgent comeback to climb from fifth to third place overall by the end of the second day.
Embarking on a nail-biting battle with last year’s victor, Jari-Matti Latvala, for third position on the final day, Østberg had the edge. Continuing to control his pace perfectly, the 25-year-old claimed a string of competitive times – including a stage win on SS21 and the final point on the end-of-event Power Stage (SS22) – to confirm what has become a regular podium slot on the wintry stages.
Impressing on what was only his second venture to Rally Sweden, Neuville displayed real potential on his least preferred surface. Using the event to perfect a new pacenote system, the Belgian kept his Fiesta RS WRC clear of trouble whilst showcasing flashes of speed. Securing a joint stage victory on Saturday evening’s Super Special in Karlstad (SS8), the youngster also claimed the laurels in the coveted Colin’s Crest Award – launching his Fiesta some 35 metres to the admiration of hundreds of fans lining the stage.
The Belgian continued his impressive drive over the final day. Keeping clear of the unforgiving snow banks, Neuville piloted his Fiesta to fifth place overall and his career best result from a winter rally.
Having been tied in a close battle with Neuville for much of the event, Hänninen kept a consistent pace until he became lodged in a snow bank on Saturday’s final stage (SS16) and was forced to forfeit his position to his young team-mate. But ever growing in confidence, the Finn kept his composure to secure a strong sixth place at the end of the event.
Also proving his capabilities as a world class competitor, Novikov impressed on his second assault at the snow-covered classic. Despite using the event to build his knowledge and experience of the specialist stages, the Russian was lying in a creditable fifth position and was rarely less than a few seconds shy of the fastest stage times.
But disaster was to strike on the second pass of the Kirkenær Special Stage (SS20). Carrying too much speed into a low-gear corner, the Muscovite rolled his Fiesta RS WRC costing him valuable minutes and relegating him to ninth place overall. Yet despite shattering the windscreen and causing some minor damage to the panels, the Fiesta proved a reliable contender – and Novikov an undeterred driver – as he went on to post the fourth fastest time over the following test (SS21).
Finally, standing in for an unwell Nasser Al-Attiyah, Matthew Wilson was left to plough the snow at the head of the field. Following a roll during Saturday’s competitive action, the Brit was subjected to making tracks for the following pack and unable to set competitive times. Making it to the end of the event, Wilson secured 27th place overall.
Mads Østberg (3rd) said:
“It was quite tricky today. We were struggling a bit on the first stages – especially on the narrow stuff. I was just not happy with the balance of the car and didn’t trust the front so we lost a bit of time there. But then on the wider sections we managed to take some time back.
“We made a few small changes after the first few stages and eventually we found a set-up that helped and were able to really take some time out of Jari-Matti [Latvala] which was important.
“I am pleased with the way we have fought back after all the troubles on the first day. It was very disappointing for me and it was hard work to find the next gear. But overall I think we have fought back to a reasonable position and scored some good points for the championship.”
Thierry Neuville (5th) said:
“I’m really pleased with the way we have performed on this rally. We drove a lot steadier today because the conditions were quite tricky especially on SS21. We drifted slightly into a snow bank and lost a bit of time there. Luckily the car didn’t get stuck, but that did cause me to back off a bit more.
“We have done a lot better than I expected this weekend. If somebody had offered me fifth place at the start of the rally, I would definitely have taken it. We also claimed the Colin’s Crest Award which was quite a nice way to reward the team who have provided us with a perfect car throughout the event. I wasn’t flat-out over the jump, so we’ll call this year a practice and I might go even further next year!”
Juho Hänninen (6th) said:
“Today was OK with no major dramas. It was a little bit difficult because there was no real fight after I lost time yesterday. I just drove on the safe side and enjoyed these nice Norwegian stages.
“I much prefer it when you have these exciting battles – it gives you that extra momentum to push. But today we did not have that and I didn’t want to take any big risks chasing times.
“But all in all I think the rally has been good for us. There were some really nice stages and the car felt great. I’m a little disappointed with the pace, but as the same time I need to be realistic. For me it has been difficult to be at the same pace at the guys at the top. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve competed here and this is such a fast event that experience counts for a lot.”
Evgeny Novikov (9th) said:
“[The roll on SS20] was my mistake. I was just a bit late with the braking into a tricky, narrow, slow right-hand corner and we rolled. The main thing I felt was disappointment at losing the time. It wasn’t a big accident though and it looked a lot worse than it was.
“The positive thing is that we had some very good speed on this rally and got to the finish. Of course fifth place would have been better, but the speed was there and I will now be in a much stronger position for next year.”
Matthew Wilson (27th) said:
“Being first on the road today has been a bit of a nightmare to be honest. We’ve just been taking it steady and making sure that we got to the end. The thing is whenever we tried to even slightly push we just ended up losing the line so it was not easy at all. I must admit that it is not so much fun when you’re out in front ploughing the road for everyone else.
“However, I’ve really enjoyed being back in the rally car. It’s never easy coming to an event like this with so little preparation. I’ve not been here for a couple of years, we didn’t really have much of a test and Gio [Bernacchini, co-driver] and I had to work hard to get used to each other’s methods. As I say, it’s not been easy, but it has been a lot of fun.”
Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said:
“We’ve seen some fantastic performances from all our Fiesta drivers today and it’s a nice sight when you look at the times to see seven of our cars occupying the top-ten. Obviously I’d like to congratulate Sébastien [Ogier] on the win – he drove fantastically all weekend and his first win with the new car is well deserved.
“Following the disappointment on the first day, we achieved our objectives and Mads [Østberg] did well to fight back to a podium position. Realistically I think that this was the best we could have hoped for after the issues on Friday morning and Mads is now in a strong position in the championship [third in the Drivers’ standings]. Thierry [Neuville] too was very impressive. He approached the event perfectly, learnt a lot, and secured a fantastic result – not only for the team but for himself too.
“Finally I need to commend Yazeed’s [Al-Rajhi] performance in WRC-2. To come to an event like Sweden – when he is used to the sand of the Middle East – and take the victory from some of the local guys is absolutely fantastic. He can be very proud of the job he has done and it just goes to show how competitive the whole range of Fiestas can be.”