From Rally Germany 2017 to Rally Sweden 2023. Ott Tanak and M-Sport Ford, exactly 5 and a half years later. find themselves unexpectedly – but deservedly – celebrating a success in a WRC event. It happened today at the Swedish Rally, where the Estonian driver and Martin Jarveoja achieved success on the snow by bringing the Ford Puma Rally1 EcoBoost Hybrid back to victory just over a year after the first and so far only victory, the one achieved by Sébastien Loeb and Isabelle Galmiche at the 2022 Rallye Monte-Carlo.
Tanak – for him it is success number 18 of his career in the WRC – also took little time to demonstrate how the Puma can be a winning car, if placed in the hands of a great driver. Excellent news for M-Sport, for Ford (which should believe more in the project) and for the WRC, which finds one of its great protagonists again after an interlocutory 2022.
Ott was very good at exploiting the perfect starting position in the special stages of the first stage to position himself immediately in the fight for the top three positions. Although he has said several times that he doesn’t have the confidence to attack, he still managed to be very consistent throughout the weekend, and this is precisely the secret that led him to victory.
His only rival, Craig Breen, seemed to have the race in hand on Saturday, but a few drooling too many and a delaminated tire (however equal to Tanak) made him lose pace and the opportunity to fight with Tanak up to the term. The Estonian closed the game for the victory in today’s first round, putting more than 11″ between himself and his rival which he then managed perfectly up to the finish line of the Power Stage.
An excellent return to Hyundai for Breen. This was his first race at the wheel of the i20 N Rally1 after racing with the Ford Puma throughout 2022 (he and Tanak actually swapped the wheel) and the performance offered reassures him for the choice made, that of return to defend the colors of the team based in Alzenau albeit part-time.
However, the bitterness of having missed another chance to win the first race in the WRC cannot be missing. Success was within his reach and, probably, without an imperfect Saturday afternoon, he would have been able to achieve it. The second place finish, due to a mistake by Neuville in the Power Stage which frustrated the teamwork thought by Hyundai, partially repays him in a weekend in which Craig was among the best.
The duel for third place was sensational, because it was fought by two drivers who competed in a capital race. Kalle Rovanpera and Thierry Neuville were forced to enter practice first on Friday because they were in the best positions in the general standings after Monte-Carlo, but they still managed to put together a top-level weekend.
The two battled it out between Saturday and Sunday, but it was Neuville who prevailed thanks to an impressive change of pace from the afternoon lap of the second stage up to today. An upswing that annihilated even the reigning world champion, but both were exceptional in holding on until the end and not giving up, always showing off stunning performances. Neuville, as mentioned, did not take advantage of the 10″ penalty inflicted on Breen for the delay in the last regroup and lost the chance to finish in second place due to a braking error. For the first time since Rally Italia Sardegna 2022, the podium does not even include a Toyota driver.
Elfyn Evans, this weekend, seems to be back the struggling rider seen throughout the season. He himself has admitted that he has no set-up solutions to improve his feeling with the GR Yaris and this can only be a significant alarm bell for Toyota. In the next event, which will take place on gravel, he will have the great opportunity to aim for victory thanks to the excellent starting position in Friday’s practice, but he will have to react to this prolonged moment of breakdown.
Pierre-Louis Loubet was in Sweden to gain experience and it showed right away, right from Friday’s practice. His pace was clearly slower than the top 5 (but also of riders who later retired or had to deal with misfortunes of a different kind). Over the course of the weekend, the Frenchman showed some interesting ideas, but it is clear that he is waiting for races that he knows in order to try and make a bigger impact. Final thrill for the M-Sport Ford driver, with the Ford Puma’s engine having a problem and the Power Stage finished in all-electric mode.
On the other hand, Esapekka Lappi was unlucky, as he was hit by a delaminated tire while firmly occupying the third position on Saturday afternoon. The Finn was a great protagonist of the weekend, showing a competitive pace also thanks to the race-test held last weekend on snow.
Without that inconvenience he would have been able to fight for the podium right up to the end. Instead he had to roll up his sleeves and recover position after position, finishing seventh after a good comeback. Takamoto Katsuta’s debut race as a Toyota factory driver ended with a double retirement. First a mistake that caused him to roll over on Friday, then a technical problem before the Power Stage made his weekend anything but memorable.
Oliver Solberg completed a dominating race by winning in the WRC2 class and giving the first success at the World level to the new Skoda Fabia RS Rally2 after the penalty inflicted on Nikolay Gryazin in Monte-Carlo, which made him miss out on success by just half a second and finished in the hands of Yohan Rossel.
The Swede, landlord due to his maternal nationality, won in his native land controlling for most of the race the enormous advantage built on the first of his rivals, Ole Christian Veiby with the Voklkswagen Polo GTI R5. On the podium also another Skoda Fabia RS Rally2, that of the young Sami Pajari, good at controlling Gryazin’s return behind him and relegating him to fourth place in his category.
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