WENGEN, Switzerland (AP) — A wide open contest in the men's World Cup downhill on Saturday might deliver a winner who sets a speed record on the classic Lauberhorn slope that has the fastest stretch on tour.
The prospect of a record was raised after Carlo Janka, the 2010 Lauberhorn champion, flashed past the speed gun at 158.77 kph (98.66 mph) on the Hanneggschuss straight during a super-combined event run under clear skies on Friday. It was believed to be the highest speed ever recorded in Wengen.
"The track is in great shape, and the snow is hard everywhere," said Marco Sullivan, the American downhill racer who placed third here in 2009 and has warm affection for the quirky old venue. "This is why we do it."
Race organizers say the fast times this week are because of ideal snow and weather conditions, and not any design changes on a course which is staging its 83rd annual meeting. "We don't go for speed records," said Guenter Hujara, men's race director for the safety conscious International Ski Federation (FIS).
"Hanneggschuss is, was and always will be in the future, the longest and fastest (straight) in our World Cup. We can let the racers go straight in this section because it is not that risky," Hujara said.
The safety promise was endorsed by Ivica Kostelic of Croatia, who has often been a thoughtful critic of FIS regulations. "There's no danger there," Kostelic told The Associated Press after a downhill training run Wednesday. "I would support it if we can make parts of the course faster."
Wengen also has the slowest downhill section on tour, as racers brake through curves midway down at around 75 kph (46.6 mph). Racers hit their top speed two minutes into a 2 1/2-minute run, then are slowed by turns before entering a sweeping final S-bend that tests their stamina.
"The Ziel-S is difficult, as it should be," said Kjetil Jansrud of Norway, after being third-fastest in the downhill leg Friday. "It's Wengen spirit — no complaints." Jansrud is fourth in the season-long downhill standings led by teammate Aksel Lund Svindal, who has a best finish of just eighth in seven Lauberhorn starts.
Svindal insists his more technical style, linking turns together, is not suited to the longer straights of Wengen. Still, he features on most rivals' list of favorites — especially in the absence of some Wengen experts.
The absence of Bode Miller and Didier Cuche this year adds to the feeling that the race is open. Miller is a two-time winner with two more podium finishes here, but said this week he will skip the entire season to heal a knee problem before the Olympic season.
Now retired, Cuche was a three-time runner-up and his quest for a victory in Switzerland's signature sports event was an annual drama. Last year's Swiss winner, Beat Feuz, is also missing through injury.
"Without them I think it is more open, but Aksel is very strong in the speed disciplines," said Didier Defago, the Olympic downhill champion who won here in 2009. "The race is tight together for time. Every guy knows that if you are a half-second faster you can win."
Just two-hundredths separated the first four finishers in Bormio three weeks ago, when Dominik Paris of Italy and Hannes Reichelt of Austria tied for the win ahead of Svindal and Austrian Klaus Kroell, the 2011 Lauberhorn champion.
Kroell has recovered his form after an offseason motocross accident sidelined him for several weeks. "I needed a long time to have a good feeling on the skis," Kroell told the AP. "Now I can fight for the win."
So can Janka, whose third place Friday was his first podium finish since March 2011. "Definitely it gives me a lot of confidence," the Swiss racer said. "This downhill (Friday) wasn't perfect. I know I can do a lot of things better."