New Qualifying Stage introduced for 2012 at Rally Sweden
Mikko Hirvonen & Jarmo Lehtinen aiming for their first win in a Citroën DS3 WRC
Loeb: ‘I’m just as fast as my rivals (on ice)’
Hirvonen ‘I have a chance of winning’
After the 2012 season kicked off in style at Rallye Monte-Carlo, the World Rally Championship moves on to Scandinavia for Rally Sweden, part of which will also be run in Norway. Following their convincing win in the Principality, the eight-time World Champions, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, will take on the Nordic drivers on their home soil. Winners here in 2010 and 2011, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will be looking to make it a hat-trick and also clinch their first victory with the Citroën Total World Rally Team.
Before embarking on a series of six gravel rallies, the WRC heads north, to the ice and snow-covered terrain of Scandinavia. Based in Karlstad, the format of Rally Sweden (9-12 February) has been altered for the 2012 edition. Thursday will feature the first ever Qualifying Stage in the history of the World Rally Championship. Also to be used in the gravel rallies, this new system will enable the best drivers to choose their starting positions, thus eliminating problems related to clearing the road. Friday will be mostly run on special stages used in the 2009 Rally Norway.
Winners of Rallye Monte-Carlo, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena return to an event where they have only won once (2004). Despite this, the eight-time World Champions will still be aiming to win the rally. “It’s perhaps not a surface on which I excel, but I love competing here. It’s actually one of the season’s most enjoyable rallies,” commented Sébastien Loeb. “If you look at my record here in previous rallies, it has often been the conditions that have made things more difficult for me. When I went off the road in 2008, it wasn’t really a winter rally as the above-zero temperatures had turned the ice into mud. Last year, I finished sixth but lost any hope of winning after clearing the road of freshly-fallen snow on the first day and then picking up a puncture… When the stages have roads covered with a good layer of sheer ice, I think I’m just as fast as my rivals.”
Regularly, if not almost always, handicapped by clearing the roads in previous years, Sébastien Loeb is unsurprisingly pleased about the changes made this year to the sporting regulations: “I thought the previous system was unfair, as the Championship leader was penalised at the start of each rally. Now I will only have myself to blame if I end up being poorly placed on the road. It won’t be easy, however, to choose the right position in the start order. In Sweden, the first few cars on the road leave a layer of crushed ice behind them that reduces grip as soon as you stray slightly off the racing line. But going first can be a disadvantage if there has been any snowfall overnight, leaving powdery snow on the roads. We mustn’t overlook any of the factors.”
As part of its preparations for this event, Citroën Total World Rally Team conducted testing in Norway with Mikko Hirvonen and then Sébastien Loeb. The Finn also took part in Rally Finnskog on Saturday and won! “Mikko has joined the team with his own experience and he has helped improve the set-up of the DS3 WRC on ice,” added Seb. “I tried his set-up and I immediately felt confident. We have made a lot of progress compared with 2011.”
“After winning the last two editions of Rally Sweden, obviously my goal is to win again,” confirmed Mikko Hirvonen. “I think that it will be a more closely-fought race than at Monte-Carlo, simply because we will all have the same tyres from start to finish. Personally, it is a new challenge, which is very motivating for me.”
Three questions to… Mikko Hirvonen
How did it feel to complete your first tests with the Citroën DS3 WRC on ice?
“It was very enjoyable to drive in conditions that I really love. Unlike Monte-Carlo, where the grip changes all the time, ice provides a very consistent level of grip. In the first few kilometres, my feeling with the car was mixed. We worked with the engineers and ended up finding the right balance for the extreme conditions that are typical in Sweden and Norway. I was very pleased with the result at the end of the session; I think we’re ready!”
Do you think you can clinch a third consecutive win in Sweden?
“I think we have a car that can win. But even though we have done well at this rally in the last four years, it is still going to be a difficult challenge. We have worked hard in testing but the Citroën DS3 WRC is still new to me. I can’t predict what my level of confidence will be on the stages but yes, I think I have chance of winning.”
You took part in the Rally Finnskog on Saturday in Norway. What was the point of racing there?
“Rally Sweden is an important event for Jarmo and me. We wanted to maximise our chances of getting the best possible result on one of our preferred surfaces. We have done a lot of work in testing, but there is always a difference between a test run that you complete ten times or more and then the actual stages, in race conditions. Rally Finnskog gave us the chance to confirm our feeling with the car in conditions similar to those we’ll have at Rally Sweden.”