Fantastic results in Sweden put more pressure on Latvala and Mikkelsen?

2014 Rally Sweden will go down in history for several things, one of them being the tricky weather and even trickier conditions, but again, that’s nothing new or unusual, even though it’s always pretty sad when it happens. You come to the North hoping for snow and ice and then Nature flips you a finger and throws rain and slush and warm temperatures at you. Should WRC think about another winter event in the calendar, lining up something between Monte Carlo and Sweden, in hope for more snow? So if not-so-wintery conditions aren’t exactly unheard of, why did I say Rally Sweden will go down in history because of it? Not sure, to be honest, it just sounded good. Oh, maybe because this kind of weather also made life pretty difficult for the crews – the gravel sections eat up the studs and destroyed tyres, grip was not consistent and, maybe worst of all, snowbanks were not your friends, as they usually are in this event. Usually in Sweden, when it’s cold and snowy enough, snowbanks are used as a steering assistance, you simply go into a corner too fast, flip the tail out and let it lean on the bank, shaving down some speed and pointing the nose in the perfect direction. This year, however, if you hoped to do that too often you would end up in a ditch, because backstabbing banks were soft and slushy and heavy and instead of acting as a wall they would act as a quicksand.

Weather and conditions such as this forced drivers to be extra cautious. Some were, some weren’t and it all turned into this wonderful display of what makes rally so amazing. The big pushers were pushing but they also managed to keep the cars on the road for most part. It really is incredible what these crews are able to out there and I’m not just saying it. It’s one thing to come to this rally to have fun or to spend some of Dad’s money, but it’s another thing to be on the 110% for three days, battling over every corner, every crest, every fast section with iffy semi-gravelly kind of grip. What Jari-Matti Latvala achieved today was extraordinary indeed, but the pressure is even bigger on him now. This win did not make his life any easier, I think, quite the opposite. He should display the same kind of pace, calmness and ability to control the situation on the next WRC event in Mexico. In fact, he must do it, otherwise guess what, the talkers will start talking again – saying JML was only quick because snow and well-of-course Finns and Norwegians are born to be fast on snow, right? Of course JML is not only fast on snow, but this victory means he must take the battle straight to Sebastien Ogier in Mexico, no second thoughts.

But what about Andreas Mikkelsen? If we ignore the fact that yeah another Scandinavian so sure he was going to be fast on the white, Andreas is also reaching the point where he needs to start delivering some positions and points and speed. He did join Volkswagen late last year and he does not have that much experience of some events, but once WRC reaches Portugal it’s game on for Andreas. There is no doubt in my mind Volkswagen picked Andreas because they saw the potential and talent in him and this extremely impressive performance in Sweden confirms their beliefs, but now it’s also more pressure on the young Norwegian to perform. Although nobody will put it like that, time for learning is running out and it’s really great to see Andreas being fully aware of that. He handled the Swedish challenges like a true professional and it was simply fantastic seeing him push Jari-Matti for so long. HUGE thanks go to Jost Capito of the Volkswagen Motorsport, as well as all other bosses and/or officials who’ve decided to let the boys slap each other on the stages – Volkswagen felt they both needed it and they risked, but it’s that risk that wins titles and glory, or at least that’s how it should be.

Mads Ostberg is back, snow or not. Yeah, again, we will be able to judge his true performance come Mexico or even Portugal, but he needed this result and podium badly. In fact, seeing three of them sharing the podium looked like three of the most solid-result-depraved drivers finally scoring big time in a major competition. Mads is still getting to know his car and I would not be surprised if he decides to test as much as possible for the next WRC gathering in Mexico, but it was great to see him work very hard in Sweden and go from “Meh, I’m not so sure about this yada yada” to “Finally, some of the confidence is back and we’re comfortable”. We know they’re all perfectly capable of top results, but this confidence bitch, she’s elusive and slippery, not easy to catch and/or hold on to.

Hyundais both finished, Juho Hanninen clinched an award for longest jump at Colin’s Crest – precious kilometers, telemetry data and teamwork experience collected. Results-wise, Sweden was poor for Hyundai, but test&development-wise it was excellent. It pushed the team and drivers, forced them to work under pressure both on stages and in service and I am sure Hyundai are glad with the amount of data they acquired in Sweden. Pity that all this data will, essentially, be useful for one event only next year.

Robert Kubica was brave to finish and even braver to admit his own faults and mistakes and lack of confidence. It’s never easy to describe Robert’s adventures and some of the reasons for his offs and crashes, but when he speaks about them, it just makes perfect sense. “I had to drive like my grandma going to supermarket and when I drive like that it’s two things – first, car has less grip so you’re in tricky situations more often and second, when I drive slow I start thinking about circuit driving because there is no push to slide the car and use it in a non-circuit racing manner. It’s a fine balance we’re trying to learn”, Robert said.

Another two performers are very much worth mentioning – Ott Tanak was excellent in his WRC comeback, proving once again he does belong to this category of rallying! It does sound like there is a solid plan behind him for this year and Rally Sweden was a perfect start to it. Kris Meeke ended his Swedish adventure not near the top but his performance was enough to keep him smile, knowing very well that experience counts big as well, especially for the first timers in Sweden.

Rally Sweden once again provided fantastic atmosphere, creative itinerary, huge spectators turnout and some much needed wintery conditions, just to keep WRC true to its character of facing humans and elements against each other in deadly speeds. Bravo!