How Tänak and M-Sport returned to the top

David Evans delivers a full rally report from last weekend's Rally Chile


Ott Tänak delivered a sublime performance to win last week’s Rally Chile – the M-Sport Ford star’s ability to blend unbeatable pace with a delicate touch and a strategy masterclass left his rivals struggling in his dust.

It’s been a long time – and something of a rollercoaster ride – since that victory in Sweden eight months ago, but Tänak demonstrated he remains at the very top of his game and the Puma Hybrid Rally1 is a potent a rally winner as ever.

Last week also marked the World Rally Championship’s return to Chile and South America. A lot’s happened in the intervening four years, but Concepción’s ability to host a spellbinding rally – and a Tänak win – remains exactly the same.



The contrast from 19 days earlier couldn’t have been more marked. Three Sundays earlier Kalle Rovanperä ruled the Acropolis Rally, dominating the event to extend his advantage at the top of the table.

Flying west of Europe for the first and only time in the season, much was made of what the Finn needed to do to celebrate a second world title in Chile. Such talk looked enormously optimistic after Friday’s opener.

Ten seconds down on early pacesetter Ott Tänak, the defending world champ was frank in his appraisal of his driving.

“It was s**t,” he said. “That was maybe one of the worst stages for driving from me this year. It was loose. More loose than we expected.”

It was loose in every sense of the word. The event-opening Pulperia test offered a technical, twisting return to Chile. Like everything on Friday (and Sunday) it was brand new to the World Rally Championship and it’s entirely fair to say it caught a few folk off guard.

If Rovanperä was irked at his start, at least he made it out of SS1. His countryman and rival Esapekka Lappi stopped within sight of the finish. Stopped against a tree.

The Hyundai man was caught out by the final left-hander of the stage. Too quick into it, he threw the i20 N Rally1 Hybrid at the apex more in hope than expectation. Sadly for him gravel had been pushed up against a concrete block, forming the perfect ramp. The car went skywards, twisting its way through two rolls, pitching – roof first – off a fence and into a tree.

It was a spectacular start to the rally and a devastating end for EP.

Minutes after he and Janne Ferm walked away from the crash, Lappi spoke to DirtFish from his seat on a tree stump within sight of his wrecked Hyundai.

“It was my fault,” he said candidly. “Too late with the braking, simple as that. After that, it was the end of the story. I tried to go a bit more inside, but it didn’t matter what I do – it would have ended like this anyway.”

Lappi added that he’d struggled for feel with the car on the loose – and a similar lack of confidence would plague team-mate Thierry Neuville throughout Friday. The Belgian worked to evolve the setup of his car across Friday’s six stages and did well to end the day a shade under a half a minute off the lead.

Tänak was the man everybody was chasing on Friday night. Save for a heavy landing (which winded co-driver Martin Järveoja) and a spin on the second stage, he was either fastest or second quickest everywhere.

“We had a bit of an issue with one damper,” he explained, “and obviously it didn’t protect us too much [on the landing]. To get 27G up to you a** was a bit uncomfortable, but we’re here and it’s OK.”

Early doors, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team’s run of misfortune looked that have come to an end as Pierre-Louis Loubet backed him up with a solid start to make it two Fords in the top four after SS2.

That was as good as it get for Puma-pedalling Frenchman.

For the second time in as many hours a Rally1 car took the South American skies before landing in the trees.

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Talking to DirtFish at the scene, a shellshocked Loubet said: “It was a massive crash. We go on the left and the road went to the right. Not ideal.”

The car was destroyed in a terrifying crash.

Watching as the Ford was hauled from the trees, Loubet’s co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul said: “We were lucky to roll. If we go straight to the trees…”

He didn’t need to add anything.

While half of the M-Sport factory service area closed up shop for the weekend, the other half had rarely been more alive. Tänak was delivering on the potential which had been there since winning in Sweden.

The 2019 champion wasn’t getting carried away.

“It’s only first day, it doesn’t mean obviously anything,” he said. “But it’s finally good to do at least Friday without having any major issues and we are still in the game.

“It definitely keeps the motivation high. These are tricky roads and tire management [is so important], it was playing in our favor – nobody could push to the maximum and I guess we were managing our tires.”

Managing the tires was key to Tänak’s lead. While everybody else sprinkled a hard or two into their package for the afternoon, Ott went out with six soft compound Pirellis and made them work across three stages.

Teemu Suninen offered Hyundai something to smile about on an otherwise tricky day with second place on Friday night. Back in the car for the first time since Finland, Suninen was looking to further impress the Korean management as he sought a full-time contract to replace the development deal he’s on for this season.


Granted, he was running in a preferable position further down the road, but he looked self-assured and racey as claimed a maiden stage win aboard an i20 N Rally1 on SS4. Arguably Suninen’s biggest issue of the day was navigating the insane traffic on the way back into Concepcion for evening service.

When he got there, he managed a smile on the day he scored his first ever stage win in a Hyundai.

“It was quite a good day,” he said, with trademark modesty. “We had a few small issues, but we managed them and the speed was good. I think there is a bit more to come.”

Could he, would he be allowed to push for a maiden win? With just 4.2s separating him and P1, it would be a big call not to allow him to press on.

At the same time, Suninen knew full-well he had to keep an eye in his metaphorical mirrors, with Elfyn Evans ensuring it was three different manufacturers in the top three positions – the Welshman placed his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 on the bottom step of the provisional podium, eight seconds behind Suninen.

Leader at lunchtime, Evans had slipped back in the afternoon as the rear of the his car offered less and less resistance to the Chilean roads.

“We didn’t change anything on the car at lunchtime,” he said. “The road cleaned a lot more this afternoon. It was really loose and, to be honest, I really struggled during the afternoon loop to feel good. It just felt really inconsistent with the grip. So yeah, I think the morning was good but I struggled a bit this afternoon.

“Maybe we could have done something with the tires – gone a different way. He [Tänak] managed the softs, but we’ve been having slightly higher wear here.”

After a miserable opener, Rovanperä’s day ended in similarly poor form with his Toyota briefly off the road through the final test. He was happy to head for the hotel in fifth place, 38.7s behind.

Could he bridge that gap?

“Not on driving alone,” he offered.


Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta rounded out the top six with Grégoire Munster enjoying his first day in a Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid. His only issue came through the morning, when his co-driver Louis Louka made the startling announcement that he’d left his pacenote book in the hotel room.

Crew co-ordinator Mick Maunder headed for the hotel room, retrieved the book and immediately started taking pictures of every page of notes. Those pictures were sent to Louka, who proceeded to read them from his phone.

“It wasn’t so ideal,” said Munster at the end of the day, “when you are reading the notes, then you are looking at a photograph of something else!”

Day one of Rally Chile had something of a crazy feel to it and the Munster story simply added to that.


After the twists and the turns – literal and metaphorical – of day one, Saturday’s faster, wider and more flowing roads were marginally more familiar, having been included on the route for the inaugural Rally Chile in 2019.

Compared, once again, with roads from Wales to New Zealand to Portugal to Australia, Chile’s Pacific-side Saturday roads will ultimately be remembered for one thing: tire wear. The weekend’s first three stages arguably ruled Toyota out of the race. Any thoughts of Rovanperä delivering another spellbinding rip back through the field were extinguished at the end of the opener. Ironically, a stage he won.

The only one he would win that morning.

He knew. Evans knew. Katsuta knew. They’d got it wrong. This was no place for the soft tire. One by one the Toyotas slipped away. Evans clung to Tänak’s coat tails through Saturday’s second stage, but pulling wheels off all four corners of his Yaris ahead of the loop’s final test, the Welshman could do little to contain his concern.

It wasn’t helped when Tänak parked next to the Toyota and proceeded to take a good look at the rubber available to his former team-mate and now rival.

Tänak’s co-driver Martin Järveoja was especially interested in the particularly roasted Pirelli which Scott Martin was putting in the trunk of the Yaris.

“It’s no problem,” smiled Martin thinly, “we don’t need that one anymore.”

Seventeen miles later and all hell had broken loose. Second had become fourth for Evans as he shipped a minute with one rear running flat and the other shredded.

Talking DirtFish through the soft-tire thinking, Evans said: “I had a suspicion leaving service [that the choice of six soft tires was wrong], but obviously the choice is already made last night, and then, yeah, obviously after the first one we tried to drive quite smooth and then the wear was so massive… at that point we knew we were a bit in trouble.

“Mostly, the grip was so low yesterday morning – and obviously the temperatures are so low here – but the abrasion of the [Saturday] stages was still massive. It was a mistake, as simple as that.”

Toyota technical director Tom Fowler offered a typical honest appraisal of the situation. But was it a mistake?


“I don’t think it was a mistake. I think what happened is the calculation was off and our other choice was to ignore our normal process, our normal calculation, and that would be a mistake.”

Mistake or not, all three Toyota drivers would dearly have loved a couple of Tänak’s hard compound Pirellis.

M-Sport and its resident Estonians called the ball perfectly on Saturday morning. Or almost perfectly. Even though his four-second lead expanded more than 10-fold through the morning, Tänak reckoned it could have been even better with six hard tires.

One thing was abundantly clear, nobody would be letting a soft Pirelli anywhere near the car in the afternoon. A point worth making here is that the Italian firm really wasn’t at fault here – nobody expected the roads to be so abrasive and Pirelli provided all the crews with enough hards to go the same way Tänak went.

Hyundai found a halfway house, with Suninen running two hards and Neuville three – although a puncture on the first stage out cost the Belgian one of those precious, more resilient Scorpions.

Both moved ahead of Evans, with Suninen impressing as he belied a complete lack of experience of driving Pirelli’s harder tire. But with Neuville 15.2s behind, questions were coming about team orders.

This time, there wouldn’t be any.

“I think it could be interesting to see Thierry and me fight,” said Suninen.


The afternoon loop didn’t offer much change in that Hyundai battle, with Neuville nibbling 1.3s across the re-run three stages. He would stay third, with Evans just 10.7s behind in fourth.

Was second still a possibility for Evans?

“What’s the gap?” he asked, before pulling a face that indicated hauling 24 seconds out of two charging i20s might be a tall order.

The man in complete control of Saturday afternoon was Tänak. He drove a stellar loop to win stages 11 and 12 and build his lead to 58.3s.

Surely that would be enough, with just 32 miles of competition to run?

“Tomorrow will be a bit of a compromise with the tires,” he said. “First, we have to make the right choice.”

Another star Saturday performance came from Oliver Solberg. After seeing the conditions on the opening loop, the Škoda driver had revised his plan for the afternoon. He looked for the long game, patiently saving his tires through the first two stages before sending it on SS12. A sensational sixth quickest would slot him into seventh place overall behind the Toyotas of Rovanperä and Katsuta with one day to run.

Day three


Arriving at the start of Sunday morning’s first stage, Tänak was being watched. As the rally leader stepped out of his Puma, a golden retriever eyed him from the other side of the road. Soon as the Ford was fired up, the dog matched it bark for bark. And as soon as Ott pulled first and accelerated away, the pursuit was on with the dog snapping at the revolving Pirellis.

That was as close as anybody came to catching him through the final day.

If Saturday afternoon had been a masterclass of speed, Sunday was a similar lesson in complete control. Nothing was going to get in his way, nothing was going to slow him down. He won and he won very, very well.

Behind him, there was a scrap for second. Or was there? Suninen had 13.9s in hand when he headed out of service bound for more new stages starting just outside the northern suburbs of Concepción.

With the only team order from Abiteboul was the one about two i20s being found at the finish. The rest? It was up to Suninen and Neuville.

Suninen’s approach? Straightforward and fairly Finnish.

“Flat out,” he grinned.

Neuville was keen to capitalise on an event that was getting better and better. He wanted second place and accepted that team orders weren’t really necessary.

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“My championship is over,” he said, “and it seems the manufacturers’ championship will be soon. Let’s see…”

Neuville was wide awake and absolutely on it on Sunday morning. Winning Las Pataguas and El Poñen, he halved the gap to Suninen ahead of the final two.

“Not good enough,” was Teemu’s thinking. “I was trying. There was some sliding, but I have to do better.”

Neuville was happy.

“I was on the limit and the car was working well,” he said.

One stage later and the matter was decided. Suninen clipped a tree stump on the inside of a fast right-hander on the penultimate test. The steering was damaged, his rally over.

“It was a great rally and a nice battle with Thierry,” he said, “but, unfortunately, our hard work came to an end because of a very small mistake. I was just a few centimeters too tight with my line and hit a tree stump, which was game over.”

Remembering Abiteboul’s thoughts on the podium, he added: “I’m very sorry to the entire team that we were unable to bring home the podium for them this weekend. We hope to be able to put that right in a few weeks at Central European Rally.”

Second was Neuville’s, but the Belgian was quick to praise his team-mate’s efforts across the weekend. And Thierry’s own rally was increasingly praiseworthy. Having looked lost coming out of the opener with no grip and no confidence, he trimmed the i20 across the next two and a bit days and had her flying on Sunday afternoon.


Third place helped Evans narrow the gap to championship leader and Sunday birthday boy Rovanperä by two points.

“We wanted more from the weekend,” said Evans. “We thought Friday was going to be difficult with the cleaning. Actually, we thought we’d managed that better than expected to be honest. It was an especially good Friday morning. The afternoon we struggled a bit more, but still overall Friday was a pretty strong day.

“Obviously, it all fell apart a bit on Saturday morning, lost the road position, and then for today. So yeah, not the best weekend, but I think overall our speed was there but didn’t capitalise on all the opportunities.”

The good news for Toyota was that third and fourth for Evans and Rovanperä was enough to land the Japanese a seventh manufacturers’ world title. Katsuta and Solberg rounded out the top six.

At the front of the field, Tänak and M-Sport celebrated a well-worked and very worthy win.