Okay, let’s pretend we can erase the borders for a moment and bring some big ass countries closer together. You know, join forces, forget the differences, unite against the common enemy. For decades Scandinavian drivers were the only ones capable of winning in Sweden. Unique mix of snow, ice and often breakneck speed required equally unique mix of skills, balls and teamwork. Also some more balls. Then, as we know, Sebastien Loeb came along and in 2004 he added his name to list of winners, among all the Swedish and Finnish drivers. After Loeb, only other non Scandinavian driver with a victory in Sweden was Sebastien Ogier in Volkswagen last year. Can he repeat that this year and become a first non-Scandinavian driver with two wins in a row in Sweden?
Sebastien was on the mission in Monte Carlo, combining patience with speed and adding some luck to the mix. Things were not looking good for him, but that did not faze him too much. Similar to what Loeb did for years and years, difficult conditions and poor odds are actually inspiration for Ogier. In Monte Carlo he was able to elbow his away through the field and with the right tyre choices and some stunning driving he did not only end up in points but on the top step of the podium.
This year, Ogier is facing some new and some old challenges. Some Scandinavian drivers changed camps, some remained with their current employers. Can the combined forces of Finland and Norway prevent Ogier to repeat the 2013 and win in Sweden? WRC does not exactly work like that, but it is going to be interesting with some new team-driver combinations, ready to excel on the white stuff. To begin with, I think Jari-Matti Latvala is going to lead the Scandinavian “defence”. Citroën’s new recruit, Mads Ostberg, does have what it takes to be fighting for the podium in Sweden, but Mads really needs solid finishes more than anything. Same can be said about another top Scandinavian pilot, Mikko Hirvonen. Mikko needs… Mikko needs… Ok, what Mikko needs is some damn luck, plain and simple, just a bit, a tiny bit of luck. Sweden is a strange place to go rallying but it’s also a fantastic one too – it allows drivers to push but only if they do know how to push and how to use the available grip and scenery to their advantage. Rely too much on luck or drop your concentration for a split second and the deep snowy banks will eat your car alive. Andreas Mikkelsen is another Scandinavian pilot with a thing or two in his agenda for Sweden. We know Andreas is fast, he did not end up where he is by being handsome and cool alone (I know some would and will argue that!) – can Sweden be the place for Mikkelsen to shine? Just when I thought I listed all Scandinavian drivers another name popped up – Juho Hanninen and Hyundai – a combination with huge potential to surprise. Perhaps victory is out of Hyundai’s reach but sometimes rally does show its true face and turn the tables around in ways not easy to predict.
Sebastien Ogier is the hot favourite for another win in Sweden, but the Scandinavian forces are very strong. I don’t know if there is a scientific explanation for the fact that over the 50+ years only two non-Scandinavians were able to win in Sweden, but if being a Finn or a Norwegian is an advantage then Ogier is really in for a fight this year. Even more so because the names I listed here are not the only drivers interested in winning. Perhaps Ogier is not going to be the one to steal another victory from Finns or Norwegians – Kris Meeke, Elfyn Evans, Robert Kubica… maybe they’re not experts on snow, but sometimes… sometimes things combine for those who are brave and patient.
Can you tell I’m hoping for one hell of a frozen hell in Sweden? I want it to be completely off the hook and unpredictable and I want the best driver to win by tiniest of margins. Snow, ice and plenty of speed could provide exactly that.