Jari-Matti Latvala clinched his third Rally Sweden victory on Saturday, moving on top of the championship table, consolidating his position after he triumphed in each of the first four stages of the day.
The Finn had a small lead of less than six seconds at the start of the day, but he ballooned that to 42.7 seconds after SS20. Latvala, who recorded his 300th stage victory in SS17, finished second in the power stage and now leads the championship by five points from Sebastien Ogier.
“It’s a long time since my win in Greece last year,” said Latvala about his ninth career victory and his second for Volkswagen. “It was brilliant that we were allowed to fight in out fairly and weren’t obliged to bow to team orders.”
It wasn’t easy outing for his chief rival Andreas Mikkelsen after he went off in SS18 and damaged his car, ending the test with smoke emerging from his Volkswagen as snow blocked the air intake. His opportunities were further truncated after SS21 got cancelled due to delays in the preceding stage.
“This morning we were maybe fighting for a win but I made a small mistake and after that it was about keeping (Mads) Ostberg behind us,” he said taking consolation in stepping on the podium for the first time in his World Rally Championship career.
Mads Ostberg ensured that he featured on the podium in Sweden for the fourth year running, with the Norwegian finishing nearly a minute off the pace. He went on to claim another three points after he emerged quickest in the power stage – a first for Ostberg.
Mikko Hirvonen was the top Ford driver in fourth, adding an additional point to his tally after finishing third in the power stage, ahead of Ott Tanak.
Defending champion Sebastien Ogier climbed up the ranks to finish sixth, achieving the “conciliation prize” he had set out to grab following his off on Friday.
“We’ve been as professional as possible,” said Ogier, who recorded ten of the 19 fastest times Volkswagen registered in 23 stages in Sweden. “After that mistake we had a perfect rally. A small mistake costs us a lot but that’s the race!”
Volkswagen maintained its lead in the manufacturers’ standings from Citroen by 16 points.
Henning Solberg, the sole driver running on Pirelli tyres, was delighted with seventh place.
“It’s been 12 months since I’ve driven a rally so to be able to challenge the top guys felt really good. And, we set some good times. And, we set a fastest stage time. Not so bad for a man in his 40s!” remarked Solberg.
Pontus Tidemand and Craig Breen made it five Fords in the top ten.
Having started the day in sixth place, Kris Meeke got stuck in a ditch on SS18 and dropped to 13th but he eventually managed to finish tenth and claim a point.
“The only minor mistake we made proved very costly. If there had been spectators around, we would probably have only lost 15 seconds or so. But we had to get the car out ourselves,” explained Meeke.
He was, however, helped by Elfyn Evans crashing out in the final stage costing him what could have been a points-paying ninth place.
Robert Kubica’s troubles of staying on track persisted. With an erroneous pace note, he hit a bank and spun into a tree in SS20 which cost him some four minutes and a cracked windscreen. He eventually finished 36 minutes behind the leader in 24th.
“I was in the wrong line and went off,” he explained. “It was my mistake from the recce because I didn’t mark the corner was tightening a lot.”
Kubica was also reprimanded for an incident on SS14 when spectators helped his car back on the road following an off. The stewards believed that the activity caused a “dangerous situation” when Ostberg came to the place of the incident and “almost hit a spectator.”
Juho Hanninen classified 19th and teammate Thierry Neuville a lowly 28th. The Belgian lost more time after he stopped on the penultimate stage to change a tyre following a puncture and finally finished nearly an hour and a half off the pace. Both the Hyundai drivers competed under Rally 2 rules following the pair’s exit on Friday.
The season will head to Mexico for the third round on March 6.
Leading finishers after SS24: Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap 1. Jari-Matti Latvala VW 3h00m31.1s 2. Andreas Mikkelsen VW +53.6s 3. Mads Ostberg Citroen +59.5s 4. Mikko Hirvonen M-Sport Ford +2m26.9s 5. Ott Tanak M-Sport Ford +3m00.5s 6. Sebastien Ogier VW +4m29.9s 7. Henning Solberg M-Sport Ford +4m47.5s 8. Pontus Tidemand M-Sport Ford +5m38.2s 9. Craig Breen Kel-Tech Ford +8m55.4s 10. Kris Meeke Citroen +11m18.0s