Thierry Neuville kept calm in the heat of a furious fight to win Rally Sweden for Hyundai on Sunday and take the lead in the FIA World Rally Championship. The Belgian became only the third non-Nordic driver to win the calendar's only pure winter rally and end an agonising 12-month wait after crashing out of a comfortable lead last year.
The win was Neuville’s first since Kennards Hire Rally Australia last November. Off-setting a disappointing result on the season-opener in Monte-Carlo three weeks ago, it also put him at the top of the drivers’ standings – ahead of Sébastien Ogier - and the factory Hyundai squad first in the manufacturers’ competition.
He overcame an electrical glitch with his Hyundai's gearshift, a lurid spin into a snow bank and extreme pressure from the chasing pack to win the four-day encounter on snow and ice-covered forest roads by 19.8sec.
"It's an incredible weekend. We didn't expect to be so fast over here this year, but the team and the car gave us the chance to fight for victory. We deserved it last year, even more this year," Neuville said. He finally broke clear of his pursuers on Saturday afternoon and, with five stage wins to his credit, eased through Sunday's final three tests to head Ireland's Craig Breen, driving a Citroën C3, for whom second was a career-best result.
Breen climbed to second on Saturday morning when Andreas Mikkelsen spun at the same point as Neuville. He kept his composure to hold off the Norwegian, teammate to the rally winner, by 8.5sec. Esapekka Lappi hounded Neuville early on until he plunged down the order after burying his Toyota Yaris in a snow bank. He fought back and gained two places in the final three stages to finish fourth, 17.5sec adrift of Mikkelsen.
A final stage mistake from Hayden Paddon made life easier for Lappi. Although capturing two stage wins in his season return for Hyundai, the Kiwi stalled his i20 a couple of kilometres from the finish and trailed the Finn by 8.6sec. After only a day's pre-event testing, Mads Østberg was sixth on his debut drive in a C3. The Norwegian ran as high as second but slid down the order as unfamiliarity with the car and a lack of confidence in its set-up cost time.
Jari-Matti Latvala, who delivered Toyota Gazoo Racing a fairytale win last season on only the Japanese manufacturer's second rally back at the top level after a 17-year absence, was seventh after being delayed by a troublesome front differential and adverse road conditions. Fellow Finn Teemu Suninen was seventh in a Ford Fiesta and the leading M-Sport World Rally Team driver after the squad, which headed the manufacturers' standings after Rallye Monte-Carlo, endured a nightmare weekend.
Ott Tänak and Monte-Carlo winner Sébastien Ogier dropped big chunks of time in Friday's opening leg as they ploughed a path through deep snow. Ogier won the most stages overall, six, but neither he nor his world champion M-Sport teammate could regain lost ground, finishing ninth and 11th respectively.
The WRC tackles dramatically different conditions when it continues at the high-altitude Rally Guanajuato Mexico on 8-11 March. The gravel event based in León, 330 kilometres north of Mexico City, will see the return of nine-time champion Sébastien Loeb in the first of three 2018 cameos with the Citroën World Rally Team.
Final outright final standings, Rally Sweden (WRC round 2):
- Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 2h52.13.1s
- Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +19.8s
- Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jaeger (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +28.3s
- Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +45.8s
- Hayden Paddon/Sebastian Marshall (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +54.4s
- Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroen C3 WRC) +1m15.3s
- Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +2m04.9s
- Teeu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Ford Fiesta WRC) +2m52.2s
- Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) +3m44.4s
- Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +5m27.4s