2024 Rally Sweden | 7 talking points

19th February 2024
Ben Miles

Esapekka Lappi took an emotional victory in the World Rally Championship’s Rally Sweden. The Finn had not won a rally for over six years and was a popular victor. But his win, which will make little impression on the standings come season end, was only one talking point in a rally that saw the title rivals struggle with road conditions, multiple World Champions crash out and Toyota’s protege show how far he has to go.


1. Snow rallies are still brilliant

First up, let’s just take a moment to appreciate our once-a-year visit to Sweden’s snow-covered forest roads. We’re not calling for more snow-based rallies – having only one makes us appreciate it all the more – but don’t the current generation of wildly fast, hybrid Rally1 cars look great as they slide around on fresh snow?

Rally Sweden has been forced to move further north in recent years, hunting out snow in a world that is seeing ever-decreasing amounts of the stuff. The 2020 event took place without any snow at all, and the IOC’s recent admission that soon only ten countries will be fit to host the Winter Olympics should be a kick to all our systems. If we love motorsport in snowy conditions, we need to help be part of the solution to keep them alive.


2. Lappi still has it

Last year Esapekka Lappi was given a chance by Hyundai to return to full-time rallying. He had last finished a full season with an emotional interview at the end of the Monza Rally in 2020, when he admitted his chances may well have all been used up. His 2023 chance was fluffed with a second half of the season that verged on torrid and saw numerous dangerous crashes.

In ‘24 both he and Hyundai took the decision to step back into a part-time campaign. One rally in and that decision has been rewarded with victory. There is hardly a more popular result in the paddock than a win for the man they call EP. 

It’s not his first, but it will feel like it. Lappi flew through the junior ranks. ERC champion in 2014, WRC2 champion in 2016, he burst onto the top-level scene in a Toyota with victory on just his fourth outing in 2017. He was the future of rallying. But since then, there’s been podiums, but also crashes, retirements, and multiple contracts not renewed. Lappi took the final day in Sweden extremely easily, and the history of the last nearly seven years tells us exactly why. We all hope this is the start of a confident rise.


3. Pressure must be on Katsuta

Where to find the exact opposite of Esapekka Lappi this Monday morning? It’s in the second full-time Toyota seat.

Like Lappi Takamoto Katsuta is extremely popular in the paddock. Like Lappi, he’s also wildly fast whenever he’s in a car and his head is in the right place. But like Lappi he just can’t seem to find that extra step. 

Unlike Lappi he has had the consistent backing of a major team and manufacturer. Toyota has backed Katsuta to the hilt, to the point that he’s now the second full-time driver in the team that has won the last five World Championships, despite never having won a rally. He has been given a full-time seat for four seasons in a row now in an era when drivers like Lappi, Teemu Suninen and Andreas Mikkelsen all struggle to find access to a Rally1 car.

Four podiums in that time might be acceptable for an up-and-coming rally driver, but at some point the next step has to be taken. While many of us willed Taka to find that consistency as he led the rally on Saturday morning, few reacted with shock when the Japanese stuck it in a snowbank. The finest chance he has had of winning a WRC event left frozen there and then.

I wouldn’t dream of saying time is up for Katsuta, but there must be those at Toyota wondering when their heavy investment will pay off. 


4. Elfyn really wants this

Elfyn Evans and Thierry Neuville were handed an extremely tough task in Sweden. Warmish conditions left little ice under the snow and then it kept snowing on Friday, laying fresh powder on the stages for those running up front to clear. The task was undoubtedly worse for Neuville running up front, but Evans in second suffered too.

But if people wondered whether Evans would be able to step up to the task of leading Toyota, maybe this weekend was the one that could prove that he can. He didn’t win, but the Welshman salvaged all but a handful of the points he could. Third at the end of Saturday was OK, but he followed that up with a maximum number of the new Super Sunday points and a determined go at beating his World Champion team-mate for Power Stage points.

Evans has often seemed the consistent one. Always second, often bringing it home, the guy Toyota can depend on to keep their Manufacturers’ crown safe.  The fact that he has only ever won four Power Stages showcases how sensibly Evans normally approaches his rallying. But in Sweden he showed that not only can he find the consistency needed for victory, he also has the fire.

Elfyn didn’t win the powerstage, but he threw everything at it. The sight of his GR Yaris drifting into a snowbank as he entered the final section, ruining his chances of the full five points, was in equal parts disappointing and exciting. This is an Evans who has been handed his golden opportunity to become the first ever Welshman to win the WRC and he will give it everything.


5. Points system is confusing

So, you don’t get any points for winning the rally now? And if you finish fourth but are faster on Sunday you could get more points than the driver that wins?

Yes. Immediately that feels uncomfortable, doesn’t it?

But it’s worse than that. It’s confusing. Elfyn Evans took home 24 points for finishing second, Esapekka Lappi 19 for winning, and Thierry Neuville and Adrian Formaux both took 18 for being fourth and third respectively. Kalle Rovenpera retired on day one but got 11.

Look. I totally get why the WRC is doing what it’s doing. Making Sunday matter makes it a better product. Who can say they enjoyed seeing drivers trundle through Sunday to save tyres for the powerstage? It’s better for TV viewers and paying spectators to see the cars fully on it every day. But this just isn’t it. I’d like to think that I’m pretty clued up on the WRC, but when I got texts from friends over the weekend asking who was getting what points I could not answer them. How is a casual or new fan supposed to understand?

The FIA has said it reserves the right to abandon this new system whenever it wants – and who doesn’t love the idea of a points system changing mid-season? – but it should be spending more time thinking about it than that. The object of the new system is correct, but this isn’t the solution. It felt a little rushed and undercooked when it was announced and it still feels like that after two rallies. Hopefully, the WRC is really thinking about this in the background.


6. Did Neuville do it deliberately? 

The controversy of the rally came on stage five. Lined up to begin the stage first, Theirry Neuville suddenly couldn’t start his Hyundai i20N. He missed his slot and Elfyn Evans was called through to go first. Only when Evans had made his way to the start line to open the stage did the Hyundai fire. 

The Belgian and his Hyundai team are adamant that it was a genuine fuel pump issue, and that it recurred all day and even in the remote stop just before that stage. But it left Evans suddenly running in the soft snow that had been hampering Neuville and he quite clearly wasn’t happy. “I guess the spirit of competition has gone out the window. So there you go,” was his instant reaction, before the Welshman caught himself and said he didn’t want to  cast judgement.

Whether it was tactics or not it didn’t work that well. Neuville didn’t fasten the pins on his bonnet properly and he was faced with most of the stage with a flapping front end to his Hyundai. But it did throw up a question of the rules. Evans was now out of order for the whole day, including the longest stage, sending him instantly backward. A penalty for running out of order seems harsh. But surely the WRC can find a way in this instance to swap drivers back into order, at least to stop someone actually playing silly buggers. Not that we think Theirry did… or do we?


7. Breen will always be remembered

Through the whole event there was a sad/happy shadow. A year ago we saw Craig Breen at possibly the happiest he had ever been seen on a WRC event. He’d returned to Hyundai after a terrible season with M-Sport, and he led Rally Sweden convincingly, so quick at times that he even dubbed himself the ‘Mayor of Brattby’ after dominating the stage. He finished second, but only because he backed off for his full-season team-mate, and even then he only just managed to slow down enough.

This year we were back without the Irishman. Without his smile and without his love of life. But no one was forgetting Breen. Having a difficult weekend even Thierry Neuville brought up “The real Mayor of Brattby” with a smile after struggling running first on the stage. The Hyundai team spent the weekend wearing beanie hats in the style of the one Breen had worn the year before and his name wasn’t far from anyone’s lips. The driver from Waterford will live long in the WRC’s collective memory.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images

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