Craig Breen leads Rally Sweden after Friday’s stage. The Irishman described his first full competitive day with the Hyundai i20 N Rally1 as “definitely one of my strongest days.” A late charge in the darkness from Tänak means Breen leads the rally overnight by 2.6 seconds.
The rally started yesterday evening with the 5.16 kilometre long Umeå Sprint stage. Kalle Rovanperä started the rally strongly by winning the opening stage in the dark by 1.6s over Ott Tänak to lead the event overnight.
A challenging job was expected on Friday for the reigning world champion due to his road position. Rally Monte Carlo winner and championship leader Sébastien Ogier is not competing in Sweden this weekend as he, like last year, does a part-time programme for the 2023 WRC season. It means that Rovanperä is the first driver on the road this weekend as the number two in the championship standings. Being first on the road is in theory a disadvantage due to the loose snow which gives little grip for the front-runners. Later runners have better conditions as a line becomes clearer, giving more grip and thus better stage times.
What was expected turned out to be reality. Rovanperä dropped 12.5 seconds to stage-winner Craig Breen in Friday’s opening stage which had ‘’a lot of (loose) snow)” according to Rovanperä and Thierry Neuville who was second on the road today.
However, it was a different story in the SS3. Surprisingly, Rovanperä took the stage win in the super-fast Sarsjölinden stage, averaging 131.9 kilometres/hour over 14.23 kilometres. The stage surface had less loose snow and instead an icier underground. It balanced out the stage times. Breen lost 2.8s to Rovanperä while Tänak moved into the lead.
Tänak extended his lead to 2.1s over Breen in SS4, the final stage of the morning loop. The stage had similar characteristics to SS3. Takamoto Katsuta took the stage win while Rovanperä (again) was impressive with the second fastest time in stage 4. The margins were small in SS4 with the top 5 covered within 1.9 seconds. Esapekka Lappi occupied the final podium spot after SS4, 4.1s behind leader Tänak and 0.6s ahead of Kalle Rovanperä who, despite his theoretically worse road position, was in the mix for the top spots after the Friday morning loop. Katsuta was fifth after SS4, just 7.1s off the lead. Elfyn Evans (third on the road) and Thierry Neuville (second on the road), were sixth and seventh respectively.
Grip levels change for the afternoon loop
The grip levels changed for the afternoon loop. The drivers couldn’t match the times set in the first passes in the morning. “Traction has left the chat,” said Rovanperä in a joking manner at the end of the first stage (Brattby) of the afternoon loop.
Rovanperä’s words were serious to an extent though: the grip did, especially for the front-runners, drop quite a lot. There were deep ruts in Brattby for the second pass. “You just have to survive,” said Neuville while Evans commented: “It’s a case of survival to be honest. The conditions are quite bad. It’s going to improve with every car.”
In some sections the gravel became visible, meaning that the front-runners had to sweep a lot of snowy gravel, meaning that the later runners had better grip. Evans’ comments turned out to be true. Craig Breen was on an absolute flier through the stage, winning the stage by a whopping 7.8 seconds over anybody else. The facial expression of the Irishman, who had a difficult 2022 season with M-Sport and drives his first rally back at Hyundai, said it all:
“The car is absolutely on rails,” said Breen at stage-end. He took the lead of the rally by 7.7 seconds over Tänak with Lappi still in third, 10.5 seconds behind Breen. Pierre-Louis Loubet was second-fastest in SS5 while Takamoto Katsuta had a high-speed roll. The Japanese driver managed to complete the stage, albeit with big damage to the front and rear of his car, but crucially also damage to the radiator of his GR Yaris Rally1. Katsuta started SS6 but had to stop in the beginning and eventually retired for the day due to the damage sustained in the previous stage.
VIDEO: Katsuta rolls in SS5
In the super-fast re-run of Sarsjöliden, the differences were smaller. But Breen continued his blistering pace to add another stage win. This time he was 2.6s faster than Evans and 2.8s faster than Tänak to extend his lead to 10.5 seconds.
Tänak had an answer for Breen’s pace in the following SS7. The Estonian set the fastest time on the stage, his first stage win for M-Sport since rejoining the team this season. Lappi was second-fastest this time, 0.9s off the Puma driver. Breen struggled with front grip in this stage and dropped 4.1 seconds to Tänak: “I tried to manage the tyres as best I could. I had so much understeer in the second half of the stage,” said Breen.
Breen’s tyres were seemingly past their best as he dropped a further 3.8 seconds to Tänak in the short 5.16 km Umeå Sprint stage to round off the day. It means that Breen leads overnight by 2.6 seconds over Tänak who, thanks to his late surge, reduced the gap to the Hyundai driver by 7.9 seconds in the final two stages of Friday which were run in the dark.
Rovanperä took, like yesterday evening, the stage win in Umeå Sprint. The 22-year-old sits in P5 overnight, 31.1 seconds off the lead. He’s 4.6 seconds behind the highest-placed Toyota of Evans. Evans himself is 15.3 seconds adrift of the final podium spot that is occupied by Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi. Lappi didn’t win a stage today but was in the top 3 of the stage classification five times (out of seven) today. The Finn is just 11.2 seconds off the lead thanks to his consistency. He even had an overshoot in stage 6, losing well over five seconds.
Thierry Neuville is P6 after Friday’s stages, 5.7 seconds behind Rovanperä and 39.4 seconds ahead of Pierre-Louis Loubet who had an overshoot in the final stage of the day.
Oliver Solberg leads the WRC2 category after the first full day and sits in P8 overall. The Swede’s lead is 13 seconds over the 21-year-old Sami Pajari who impresses on his first outing with the Skoda Fabia RS Rally2. Jari Huttunen is third in WRC2 and rounds off the top 10 in an ‘’old’’ first-generation Skoda Fabia R5. Huttunen holds a slender 1.9-second advantage over Ole Christian Veiby who pilots a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
There are seven stages scheduled for tomorrow, totalling 126.22 competive kilometres. The first stage of Saturday, SS9 Norrby, starts at 08:05 local time (CET, 07:05 GMT, 02:05 ET)
WRC Rally Sweden 2023 – O/A standings after SS8 (End of Friday)
|#||Drivers||Car||Time / Diff. to 1st|
|1.||Breen / Fulton||Hyundai i20 N Rally1||57:05.5|
|2.||Tänak / Järveoja||Ford Puma Rally1||+2.6|
|3.||Lappi / Ferm||Hyundai i20 N Rally1||+11.2|
|4.||Evans / Martin||Toyota GR Yaris Rally1||+26.5|
|5.||Rovanperä / Halttunen||Toyota GR Yaris Rally1||+31.1|
|6.||Neuville / Wydaeghe||Hyundai i20 N Rally1||+36.8|
|7.||Loubet / Gilsoul||Ford Puma Rally1||+1:16.2|
|8.||Solberg / Edmondson||Skoda Fabia RS Rally2||+2:56.8|
|9.||Pajari / Mälkönen||Skoda Fabia RS Rally2||+3:09.8|
|10.||Huttunen / Linnaketo||Skoda Fabia R5||+3:31.9|
Photo: Hyundai Motorsport