Sebastien Ogier has ended the first full day of Rally Sweden on top, 'gifted' the position after Andreas Mikkelsen opted to slow in the final test and save tyres for Friday morning.
Ogier took the lead in the opening loop, initially building an 8.7 second cushion, until Mikkelsen slashed that to just 1.6 seconds ahead of the re-group. On the second loop, Ogier continued to come under pressure from his Volkswagen team-mate, who closed to within 0.5 seconds in SS5, before re-taking the lead he had held overnight in SS6 - albeit by just 0.2 seconds. Mikkelsen then purposely slowed in the second run through Torsby and that bumped Ogier back up into P1.
Ogier and Mikkelsen will now go into the overnight service back in Hagfors split by just 5.8 seconds, although Ogier will have to run first on the road tomorrow.
"To be first onto the route at a winter rally in Sweden is always difficult," Ogier said. "As such, I was not sure what position we would find ourselves in come the evening. Anything in the top three would have been great. I am really extremely happy that we are actually leading the rally. The conditions were remarkably good, and better than we had expected. I am very happy with my own performance. It was a perfect day for us, and to have won three special stages from this starting position is a dream result. We now go into day two full of optimism."
Mikkelsen was equally pleased: "That was definitely the best day I have had since I joined Volkswagen. I won three stages and led the rally – and all on my own doorstep. Then there were the many Norwegian flags, my family and friends who came here to cheer me on. You obviously want to put on a particularly good show with all that support. The conditions were not easy today. I actually held a slender lead going into the final special stage of the day, but decided to save my tyres for tomorrow morning. As such, I lost a bit of time. My goal remains a podium finish. I will certainly not risk everything, but anything is possible."
Jari-Matti Latvala meanwhile holds third, potentially giving VW a clean sweep of the podium places. Latvala tagged a snowbank in SS6, but lost little time and remains in contention, 12.2 seconds off Ogier and 7.7 seconds off VW 'junior' driver, Mikkelsen.
"I found it difficult to get the grip [in that last test]," said Latvala. "Maybe my tyres were a bit too worn, but that's the way it was and we lost some time. Tomorrow [though] is a new day!"
Behind, Ott Tanak completes the day in fourth and he showed he has lost none of his speed despite a year on the sidelines. Indeed he has set top-four times in every single test so far, excluding SS6. He also won SS5 and was second in SS2.
"It's been such a long time since my last WRC drive, so it really is a fantastic feeling to be back driving this car. Everything is working perfectly. I immediately had a good feeling with the car and we've just continued to keep that pace throughout the day," Tanak stated.
"I don't think I'm ready to push yet, but we will see. Tomorrow I want to have a risk free drive. We'll see some longer stages and we'll need to think about looking after the tyres. No matter how tempting it would be to push, we need to be smart."
Citroen's Mads Ostberg and M-Sport WRT #1 Mikko Hirvonen lie joint fifth, 7.7 seconds further back.
"It has been an interesting first leg," Ostberg reflected. "The surface was quite slippery this morning with a mix of fresh snow and slush. Our set-up wasn't ideal this morning, but we managed to make some improvements before the second loop. My driving was also better in the afternoon. When there was a bit of gravel, I felt more confident. We're moving in the right direction."
"It's been a good day for us," added Hirvonen. "On the first stage [SS2] I was a little bit cautious as I really didn't want to make the same mistake as last year, but other than that everything has been OK.
"Our times have been a little bit up and down when compared to the leaders so we will have to wait and see what tomorrow brings. Our pace has been improving throughout the day, so hopefully we'll be able to continue what we started and end tomorrow in another strong position."
Hyundai duo Thierry Neuville and Juho Hanninen then come in seventh and eighth, with Pontus Tidemand and Kris Meeke rounding out the top-ten.
"It has been a positive day overall," Neuville commented. "We have shown some great potential and by the end of the day we had a good feeling from the Hyundai i20 WRC. Throughout the day we got more and more confidence and were able to set some good stage times. We worked on some items in anticipation of tomorrow's stages. I know in what areas we need to focus overnight and to find improvements to go even quicker tomorrow. It has taken time to adapt to the conditions but we have two more days to go and I'm pleased with what we've achieved so far."
Hanninen echoed those thoughts: "It's been a reasonably good day and it's a pleasure for Tomi [Tuominen - my co-driver] and me to be competing with the Hyundai Shell World Rally Team here in Sweden. I was a bit nervous before starting the first stage this morning but after finding our confidence with the car was good and that we could reach a good pace, all the tension went away.
"I made a small mistake on the final morning stage and lost a few seconds but our focus has been on completing the stages and improving our feeling with the Hyundai i20 WRC. The Michelin tyres have been very good and I am really happy with the performance of the car. We have a good set-up, so I look forward to making more progress tomorrow."
Of the rest, former F1 ace Robert Kubica is just outside the points in P11, one spot ahead of Crash.net
columnist, Elfyn Evans. Henning Solberg had been running eighth, but a puncture in SS7, when he hit a stone, cost him over 30 seconds and dropped him back to 13th.
"It's been a difficult day with some very challenging stages, but I think that we have learnt a lot and I am very pleased with our performance," said Kubica. "For a first time here in Sweden, and having never been to an event like this before, I don't think we could have done much more.
"The most difficult aspect has been to judge how much grip there is. Sometimes you can see a surface change, but with no experience, you have no idea what to expect. The most important thing for us now is to continue as we are and ensure we make it to the end of the event. Rally Sweden only comes around once a year, so I am determined to make the most of this weekend – improve my skills, and become a better driver in these conditions."
"It's been a tough day, but also a very valuable one," Evans continued. "We made a small mistake on the first stage [SS2], but other than that we've had a completely clean run of stages which gives us a really good base to build on. I've certainly learnt a lot, and I'm looking forward to building on that again tomorrow."
In WRC2, Yazeed Al-Rajhi remains on course for the class victory, now 34.4 seconds up on Jari Ketomaa. Ketomaa conceded around 10 seconds in the final test after losing the power steering on his Fiesta R5. He also reported he had a 'huge moment' and went completely off the road.
The action now continues on Friday, with nine stages on the bill and a total competitive distance of 117.46 kilometres. SS8, the 15 kilometre Lesjofors 1 test, is due to start at 08.16 hours local time [07.16 hours UK time].
Rally Sweden: Overall standings after Stage 7 (Top 10):
1. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 39m 56.5s
2. Andreas Mikkelsen
Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +00m 05.8s
3. Jari-Matti Latvala
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +00m 12.2s
4. Ott Tanak
M-Sport Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00m 14.8s
5. Mads Ostberg
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +00m 22.5s
= Mikko Hirvonen
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00m 22.5s
7. Thierry Neuville
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +00m 32.0s
8. Juho Hanninen
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +00m 42.0s
9. Pontus Tidemand
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00m 44.6s
10. Kris Meeke
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +00m 46.3s
11. Robert Kubica
RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00m 59.9s
12. Elfyn Evans
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 11.2s
13. Henning Solberg
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 24.0s
14. Craig Breen
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 31.0s
15. Yazeed Al-Rajhi
Ford Fiesta RRC +02m 04.0s
16. Jari Ketomaa
Drive DMACK WRT Ford Fiesta R5 +02m 38.4s
WRC2 standings after Stage 7 (Top 3):
1. Yazeed Al-Rajhi
Ford Fiesta RRC 42m 00.5s
2. Jari Ketomaa
Drive DMACK WRT Ford Fiesta R5 +00m 34.4s
3. Yuriy Protasov
Ford Fiesta R5 +00m 43.3s
all times unofficial