Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team aim to continue their record of success on the snow and ice of Rally Sweden when round two of the 2023 FIA World Rally Championship takes place this week.
Sweden was the scene of the team’s first victory, in 2017, when Jari-Matti Latvala – now Team Principal – claimed a shock win in TGR’s second WRC outing. Since then, the team have won three times in the last three Swedish events, including the maiden victory for the Yaris Rally1 Hybrid car in 2022, driven by Kalle Rovanperä.
That result kick-started Rovanperä’s run to his first drivers’ championship, and the Finn will arrive in Sweden effectively leading this year’s title race. Last month he completed a one-two finish for TGR-WRT on the season-opening Rallye Monte-Carlo behind Sébastien Ogier – who heads the standings but has not included Sweden in his part-season programme.
A founding round of the WRC, Rally Sweden is one of the oldest rallies in the world. It is also the only event on the calendar to take place entirely on snow and ice, with temperatures set to plunge as low as -10°C during rally week.
Winter rallying demands a unique approach. Drivers ‘lean’ their cars against snowbanks to guide them around corners, while studded Pirelli tyres bite into the ice to provide remarkable grip. Ironically, it’s one of the fastest rallies of the year – as proven last season when victor Kalle Rovanperä averaged a whopping 121.52kph.
Rovanperä will be doing everything in his power to go even faster this time around. With a world title to defend and a Sweden double in his sights, the Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 driver will be first to traverse the roads of the Västerbotten region during Friday’s opening leg – and that will be a challenge in itself.
“It can be tricky to open the road on snow and it depends a lot on how the conditions will be,” he said. “We had a good result in Sweden last year and we will try to repeat it this time.
“Our pre-event test went really well, with perfect conditions and a thick layer of ice on the road. Hopefully it’s like that for the rally too, and we don’t suffer too much running first on Friday.”
Takamoto Katsuta therefore steps up to be part of the main Toyota Gazoo Racing team’s three-car line-up for the first time, alongside Rovanperä and Elfyn Evans – who won in Sweden in 2020. Having often rallied on snow and ice in Finland as part of his training through the TGR WRC Challenge Program, Japanese driver Katsuta also has a strong record in Sweden, taking a breakthrough WRC2 win there in 2018 and finishing fourth overall last year.
Elfyn Evans (above) said, “Overall, Rallye Monte-Carlo was a good start to the year even if our result was disappointing with the pace that I think we had. Now we head to Sweden and a completely different challenge.
“Even with the snow and ice, it’s still one of the fastest rallies on the calendar, especially since the base has moved a bit further north. I think the stages are even faster and we will have some new ones on this year’s route that we are yet to discover. It’s a rally where it’s almost impossible to have a perfect car all the time, because the grip you have can change a lot within one loop of stages, but we were able to work through various options in our test.”
Thierry Neuville will look to build upon his Rallye Monte-Carlo podium with another strong showing this time out. The Belgian driver has good company at Hyundai Motorsport as team-mates Esapekka Lappi and Craig Breen have both scored podiums in previous Rally Sweden editions.
For part-time driver Breen, the event marks something of a homecoming as he replaces Dani Sordo behind the wheel of Hyundai’s third i20 N. He drove for the team from 2019 to 2021 but spent last season with rivals M-Sport Ford. Now, after a year away, he’s back.
“With it being my first competitive event in the car, this will be a challenge,” admitted the Irishman. “Ultimately, my main goal is to enjoy the experience.”
Ott Tänak, who re-joined M-Sport Ford from Hyundai late last year, is eager to prove the potential he has aboard the Puma Rally1.
The Estonian driver steered the car to victory on a local rally last weekend, where conditions were similar to what he’ll face this week. That has given Tänak the confidence that he, along with young team-mate Pierre-Louis Loubet, can challenge for the top positions.
“Personally, I feel much more confident on snow, so we’ll see how we compare to the other guys,” Tänak said. “If it’s icy it’s better to be out earlier on the road, and if it’s very snowy it’s the other way around. So, it really depends on the conditions, we’ll just have to see what the weather does. Either way, we are ready for the action – we have no choice!”
The rally begins from Umeå on Thursday evening. Crews then tackle 18 stages covering 301.18km before Sunday afternoon’s finish.
TGR-WRT will still have four cars in action in the top category in Sweden, as Italy’s Lorenzo Bertelli becomes the first customer driver to compete in the GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid.
Rally Sweden is the only true winter round on the calendar. Last year it moved to a new home in Umeå: the largest city in northern Sweden.
As well as providing a better guarantee of the extreme conditions the rally is known for, the move also brought even quicker roads. Special studded tyres bite into the surface to provide impressive grip; helping make this one the fastest rallies of the year with drivers ‘leaning’ their cars on snow banks by the sides of the road to carry more speed through corners.
The rally will begin on Thursday evening with a short sprint stage in Umeå, which is run again on Friday following two loops of three stages: Brattby and Sarsjöliden to the west were driven on Saturday and Sunday respectively last year, while Botsmark to the north is new.
Saturday’s repeated loop of three stages begins with two new tests: Norrby and Floda, which is the most northerly stage of the rally and also the longest at 17.6 miles. A double-length version of the Umeå stage rounds off the day, and also serves as the rally-ending Power Stage on Sunday following two passes of another new test, Västervik.