Rally Sweden’s route hasn’t changed a lot since 2017. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it – goes the old saying – but would there be something to fix in the route? Let’s take a closer look.
In 2017 Rally Sweden made quite big updates on its route, whereas not much changed for 2018. And again for this year, only one stage has been replaced alongside only slight modifications, making it a third year in a row for almost all of the stages.
As before, the center of the rally is the airport of Torsby, although the ceremonial start and super special are located in the city of Karlstad. Some of the stages are again run behind the border of Norway.
Just as in Monte Carlo, the weather conditions will play a big role on how the rally will turn out – more than the roads by themselves. The last three editions of the rally are a good example of this. Last year we had a big snowfall making it difficult to open the road, whereas in 2016 there was a desperate lack of snow, resulting in stages being canceled and drivers starting at the back having to deal with gravel and stones on the road destroying the studs. 2017 landed somewhere in the middle, with enough snow but not too much.
At the moment of writing this blog post, the forecasts are showing normal winter weather, but the following weeks could still change it all. Already a couple of weeks ago some preparing was done to ensure a solid layer of ice over the road.
The shakedown stage at Skalla is probably the longest of the season at 6.86 km. It starts very twisty and technical, becomes faster and then something like the mix of the two first road types, giving a good representation of what’s to come. Last year we even saw a number of spins and snowbank excursions.
The opening super special is a twin-car track at Karlstad, the only snowy super special of the year. In 2017 this seemingly harmless Mickey Mouse stage became a rally decider when Thierry Neuville hit a concrete barrier and smashed the steering of his car, destroying also his dreams of a Rally Sweden win.
Friday takes the crews again over to Norway, North-West from Torsby. The loop behind the border contains three stages, each around 20 km in length.
Hof-Finnskog is a mixture of roads of different width, but always very fast, including many tests of the rev limiter on sixth gear. What’s keeping the drivers awake are the numerous junctions between different road sections. Still, it’s not hard to believe that this has been the fastest stage of the rally the past two years it has been a part of the event. In 2017 with better conditions Thierry Neuville managed an average speed of 127 km/h on this stage.
Svullrya is the longest stage of the rally at 24.88 km, familiar for the drivers since 2015. It’s built on same elements as the previous one – breathtakingly fast forest roads and junction turns – but adds in some more technical roads to balance the flat out sections. Another remarkable place is the rare jump at 12.5 km. There’s also some creative use of junctions forming artificial loops to break fast sections, or even chicanes at the very ending of the stage, shown on this historic class video at 16:05.
In 2017 Thierry Neuville was 11 seconds faster than anyone else on the second run of Svullrya. Last year Esapekka Lappi went into a snowbank blocking the cooling system with snow, in addition to losing some time.
Röjden starts on Sweden’s side, crosses the border to Norway and comes back. It starts with a bumpy section that’s still fast but has also some nice drivable corners. Midway through the stage a wider section arrives, being cut short by a series of junctions amid houses and Norwegian flags – a picturesque place – succeeded by another quite narrow but fast forest part.
The small roads at the end of the stage were accidentally left unploughed last year, making them “undrivable” for the front runners. This year the ending of the stage is changed not to turn into those roads but to continue straight for a new 1.8 km piece of road.
This stage was driven for the first time in 2011 under the title Løvhaugen, then into the opposite direction. After a few years off the itinerary, the stage returned with the current title and direction in 2015. Last year Sebastien Ogier had a snowbank excursion here, costing some aero parts in addition to time. His teammate Elfyn Evans also had a similar slight off.
Röjden was also treacherous for Juho Hänninen, Kris Meeke and Craig Breen in 2017.
In my opinion one of the best things about the Rally Sweden route is that every day ends with the Torsby stage with its finish right at the service park. The stage has featured in the rally since 2014. But don’t be fooled by older itineraries – other stages have also born the same title.
There’s two different versions of the Torsby stage. On Friday and Sunday it starts with a very technical, twisty and bumpy forest road, continues on a very fast forest section and finally turns onto a narrow service road, interfered by a super special like excursion spiced with an artificial jump. Meanwhile, the Saturday version contains only the latter part, being almost like a super special.
For this year, the finish line is placed 650 m earlier than last year, on a fast straight, reducing the amount of the artificial section. This also means that a tricky corner where Hayden Paddon stalled his car on last year’s power stage will be now the second to last corner of the stage.
With most of the forest stages being around 20 km, Torsby stands out as the short one at 9 km in length. The dualistic nature of the stage, starting as a forest stage and ending as a super special poses an interesting rhythm change and challenge for the drivers, although it’s not the only Rally Sweden stage to do so.
The Saturday stages are driven South-East of Torsby, providing more technical characteristics than the Norway stages and even possibly different snow conditions.
In comparison to the almost persistent route of Rally Sweden, the Saturday opening slot seems almost like a revolving door. In 2017 the day opened with the notoriously fast Knon stage which eventually had its second run cancelled. For 2018 it was replaced with Torntorp, and now for 2019 its place is taken by Rämmen.
Albeit being a Rally Sweden staple, Rämmen was last run in 2016, now reversed to a direction not driven before (at least in the last 10 years). It also has a piece of road at the beginning which hasn’t been used since 2010.
Rämmen has a lot of different rhythms: Rally Finland style bends over crests in the beginning, hyper fast long straights at 7 km, a series of hairpins at 11 km, a start-stop-feeling at 15 km and fast-flowing at the end. The lakeside bends with a narrow bridge at 18 km will also be a nice place to spectate (if the ice is strong enough to walk on).
Hagfors is another classic stage driven sometimes under the title Värmullensåsen. A long fast section appears about 12 km into the stage, but mostly there are tighter bends balancing the pace. Towards the end it gets narrower and narrower before reaching a super special type of section at a ski slope with tight bends and an artificial jump.
Last year Elfyn Evans, Andreas Mikkelsen and Teemu Suninen all spun on the same corner in Hagfors. Meanwhile, Kris Meeke went into a snowbank near the start of the stage and had to continue at a slower pace because the cooling system was filled with snow. Afterwards Ott Tänak tried to overtake him but the road was too narrow, resulting in Tänak hitting Meeke’s car and plummetting into another snowbank.
Vargåsen is the stage known for its infamous Colin’s Crest jump, which is popular with spectators and media year to year. This stage has featured in the rally almost every year throughout the millennium, although in 2017 it was shortened to end soon after Colin’s Crest, thus making it perfect for live televising.
Vargåsen starts with a completely flat out forest section for about 2 km but that’s where it stops being easy for this stage. The rest of it is a very technical forest road until Colin’s Crest, where it gets a bit faster for a while again.
I would go as far as saying it’s the most difficult stage of the rally. The numbers at least confirm that it’s the slowest forest stage of the rally (without super special elements). It’s also remarkable that most of the stage is run on a single stretch of road, so it’s not junction making the stage technical, save for one short detour and a 90 degree turn just before the finish line.
In 2017 Kris Meeke went off on Vargåsen about midway through the stage, costing him a good amount of time. That year, it was Mads Østberg responsible for the longest jump on Colin’s Crest.
Last year’s most memorable performaces on Colin’s Crest were the jumps by Thierry Neuville and Teemu Suninen, each trying out the hardness of the snowbank on different sides of the road.
In my opinion, the worst thing about Rally Sweden’s route is inevitably the repeat of the Karlstad super special on the Saturday evening. It wouldn’t be so bad otherwise, but it’s 100 km away from the rally center. On Saturday the crews have to do 200 km of liaison just for that one super special. If they returned directly from Vargåsen’s ending to Torsby, it would be a 30 km liaison.
I understand that the super special in the city is good for more tourist type of spectators and financially important to the rally, but maybe a different configuration would make it more sensible? Maybe some forest stages closer to Karlstad would work, but then again they could be crucially less snowy, being further South.
Like mentioned before, Saturday concludes with a short version of the Torsby stage, titled Torsby Sprint, consisting only of the super special like narrow section near the service park. Also the initial acceleration and first junction turn is driven from the other direction, but other than that it’s a repeat of the longer stage.
Like last year, there is one instantly-repeated stage before the power stage. This 20 km test is called Likenäs and situated North-East of Torsby.
Likenäs starts with a super special type of section at a rallycross track. After negotiating through the Mickey Mouse part, it’s time to dive again into the woods for 20 kilometres, starting with a tricky narrow bridge. At 5.5 km the stage becomes very twisty, creating a flow where the road turns constantly somewhere. Then the rest of the stage is reminiscent of the Norway stages with several rev-limiter-reaching straights and some tight junctions. A bit of everything in one stage.
In 2017 Jari-Matti Latvala was the king of Likenäs, extending a 3.8 second lead into 20 seconds over the two consecutive runs of the stage, essentially consolidating the win of the rally as well as the debut win of the Toyota Yaris WRC. Meanwhile, Sebastien Ogier span in the very first junction of the stage.
I know it gets tiresome to mention Kris Meeke all over, but he has had a spin here two years in a row, the latter time struggling to get the car turned back onto the correct direction on the narrow road.
After two runs of Likenäs it’s power stage time and return to Torsby. The pace notes should be well-refined as the stage has been already run on Friday and the ending also on Saturday.
In Rally Sweden the first car may have to clear the road of fresh snow as we saw in extremes last year. However, if there’s a lack of snow, it could be that the car by car more gravel is pulled up from below the ice, destroying the studs for later starters. Another challenge is the second run of the stages when the stage surface has been affected by different track and tyre widths of the WRC2, JWRC and historic cars.
Whatever happens, the Rally Monte Carlo winner Sebastien Ogier will be first on the road, followed by his championship rivals Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak. The drivers who had a bad Monte – such as Elfyn Evans, Andreas Mikkelsen and Esapekka Lappi – will start further back, but it’s now up to the weather situation to decide who’s got it better. At least Ogier knows how to win this rally starting first on the road.
Here we have Colin McRae on a snowy Hagfors stage back in 2001.
Cover image by Tapio Lehtonen
EDIT 3.2. Added onboard of Svullrya chicane
EDIT 15.2. Corrected information that Hayden Paddon corner is included on the Torsby stage