When the wildfires gave way to some of the worst storms to hit Greece in years, the Acropolis Rally organizers must have wondered if they’d done something to provoke Nemesis, the goddess of retribution.
In their darkest hour, the clouds parted, storm Daniel shipped out and Pavlos Athanassoulas and his team pulled together one of the finest World Rally Championship rounds in recent history. The DirtFish long read relays the three-and-a-bit days that made round 10 of the season unforgettable.
Day 1 (Thursday)
Buckets. Everywhere. Landing into Athens airport, water collection devices were located like chicanes around the place. The road north out of the capital? A river. It’s OK. The rain’s going to stop lunchtime Wednesday.
Wednesday night? Another biblical storm with the sky seemingly lit by one continuous lightening stream. Thunder boomed between the mountains and the rain simply didn’t ease. Rivers became raging torrents and the police around Loutraki called a halt to proceedings.
Mobile telephones everywhere beeped with messages from local government agencies telling everybody to stay put. Nobody move. The weather was too crazy to consider driving in.
Right there, late morning Thursday was when the serious doubt seemed to come in.
How could this thing carry on? How could it work if the rain just kept on coming? In short, it couldn’t have worked.
A break in the cloud. It stopped. Through Thursday afternoon there was the odd shower, but storm Daniel turned its back on central Greece and moved away to spoil somebody else’s fun.
It’s impossible to overstate the effort and the input from the organizers of Acropolis Rally Greece. What they did to work through such appalling conditions was astonishing – and nowhere more so than at Thursday night’s superspecial. Even with the rain bouncing off the yachts in the harbor dockside, the infrastructure was being finished. Stickers needed more persuasion to stick and ratchet straps holding down inflatable arches were given an extra tug, but it worked. Everything came together.
We had a rally. And one with exceptional potential at that.
After the rain came the debate: what would the roads look like?
Championship leader Kalle Rovanperä was going to be the chief beneficiary. Toyota’s Finn had been the one leading the rain dance ahead of the event, but he hadn’t expected his moves to deliver quite so emphatically.
Rovanperä went quickest through Athens’ all-asphalt, mile-long harborside crowd-pleaser on Thursday. Crucially, the tires selected for SS1 would remain on the cars as they went into Friday morning’s first stage proper – hence the absence of any overly vigorous tire warming from the crews keen to contain as much rubber as possible on their soft Pirellis.
Thursday night was spent north of Athens in Loutraki, from where the roads would get rocky and the cars dirty on Friday morning.
Day 2 (Friday)
Thierry Neuville was quickest out of the blocks, fastest by 3.4 seconds and straight into the lead. Behind the Belgian, less than a second split Ott Tänak, Sébastien Ogier and Rovanperä.
Friday’s itinerary was slightly different from normal, with just one of the four stages repeated: Loutraki featured twice with a single shot at Pissia separating the two runs. From there, it was north again into classic Acropolis country, passing road signs to Thiva and Aghi Theodori on the way. The opening day was all about taking the cars out of Athens and the promotional aspect of the event and into the sport’s heartland.
With no rain and a good breeze, the Livadia and Elatia tests were the driest of the day. Rovanperä’s early optimism disappeared.
“That was horrible,” he said emerging from the day’s penultimate stage. “There was so much loose – I didn’t expect that after so much rain.” The #69 GR Yaris Rally1 shipped 20s in those two stages, sitting third overnight.
Up front, Neuville revelled in a drying SS5 to triple his lead over Ogier to 7.4s.
He wasn’t fastest, however. That achievement fell to Tänak. The Estonian’s Friday morning had started brightly enough, even though his Ford Puma felt slightly wayward underneath him. Arriving at the remote tire zone in Loutraki and expecting to bolt another set of Pirellis to the car’s four corners, Tänak and co-driver Martin Järveoja were about to get their hands very dirty.
The 2019 champion told DirtFish the story.
“Basically, we were going into tire fitting zone. I started the engine but [the] water pump didn’t start. So we were overheating the engine immediately by idling there. By overriding, I couldn’t get started so in tire fitting zone we tried to kick [jump start] it a bit to somehow try to get it going again, but that was not happening.
“In the end there was a decision to just strip it down and open the water pump. This is already a big job, but we managed to open it, clean it and get it running again and then it was in some kind of safety mode which meant it would run all of the time. That’s how we got through the day.”
What happened after that was pure Tänak
This wasn’t the work of a moment and not something that could be done with the limited tools carried in the Puma itself and certainly not within the allocated 15 minutes given to change tires. Any hope of a win went with 220s of penalties for being late to the next stage.
What happened after that was pure Tänak. With his water pump issue turning full-time, he ripped into the day’s final two stages and won them both.
Did that demonstration of speed make the whole situation better or worse?
“I don’t know,” he said. “To be honest, not in a happy place at the moment. I’m sure all the team feels the same. We’ve had far too many events like this this year and I can’t say that we are super motivated looking to the next stage.
“We need to keep going, so that’s the job we need to do.”
Tänak’s speed came as some consolation on a miserable day for M-Sport, with Pierre-Louis Loubet not making the Friday morning opener after a water pump problem of his own stopped his Puma in its tracks.
Going into the final stage of the day, Neuville was hoping to build more time into his lead – a double-digit advantage would have been very welcome in the Korean camp. An issue with the i20 N Rally1’s transmission slowed him and dropped him back within touching distance – 2.8s – of Ogier.
“The clutch was slipping,” revealed Neuville. “It’s a problem we have had in the past and I was surprised it appeared again. I had it since this morning on the launches and in the last stage it just went and was really bad.
“Every first, second, third gear acceleration I couldn’t go full throttle because it was too much torque for the clutch and it was spinning. I was obviously losing time and the drivability of the car is less good, but I managed to get through. I was using a lot the handbrake to make the car rotate and it worked.”
That issue combined, with a spirited end to the day for Ogier ensured the gap was whittled down on Friday night. And the lead Toyota – and that of team-mate Elfyn Evans – arrived with the main section of the rear wing missing.
“I don’t know where it happened, but I felt that it had gone,” said Ogier.
Winged and wingless, the Toyotas were two, three (Rovanperä), four (Evans) and six (Takamoto Katsuta) at the end of day one.
Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi was in the middle of the fleet of Yarises in fifth place. A damaged radiator was bodged and repaired for the final stage. With crossed fingers, Lappi set off for the final road section north into Loutraki. The repair held and he sat half a minute off the lead.
“I’m not so happy with the car,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable. Sometimes today, it felt like we were going quickly, but the time wasn’t there.”
With a shrug, he promised to have a re-think overnight ahead of the event’s longest day.
Day 3 (Saturday)
Neuville arrived at the finish of the opening stage and stared at the times. He adjusted his glasses and looked again.
He’d lost the lead as both Rovanperä and Ogier went faster than him. It was the latter who profited the most, with Sébastien moving into a not inconsequential lead of 7.8s. Neuville had dropped 11.9 to fastest man Kalle.
“I don’t know,” was Neuville’s assessment of where the time gap came from. “For me, it felt OK.”
That Pavliani stage had, however, been the one most crews feared for. It was the road reckoned by many to have suffered the brunt of Daniel’s fury. High in the sky, the morning sun picked temperatures up to knock on the door of 85 Fahrenheit. Between the trees in the forests which clung to the Peloponnese mountains, it was cooler and considerably wetter.
On a stage where building speed was constantly hindered by corner after corner after corner, rhythm was hard to find and performance perplexing. The storm had gouged out a mid-stage washaway which turned a compression into a horrible kicker. Pretty much every car was stood on its nose in there. Some only felt the cost of sending the rear skywards later in the day.
“It was quite a bad kick,” said the new leader Ogier.
Having had the wind removed from his Hyundai sail on the opener, Neuville tacked, turned and found a gust of wind to fill the mainsail in Karoutes. He took most of it back, winning the stage by 9.8s. In a thundering run down the hill towards Itea, the #11 car was back to P1.
“It was interesting coming down there,” smiled Neuville. “I never drove this stage in this direction before.”
Asked how hard he’d gone, his brow furrowed slightly as he added: “There wasn’t a lot left.”
Arriving into the port for a regroup, the crews weren’t going to waste a moment as they sought to square the Saturday circle of tire strategy. The lead crews had all gone out with a mix of three hard and three soft Pirellis. Softs had been the priority through the damp opener, but who’d done what in the considerably drier and more abrasive Karoutes?
Nobody was willing to show their hand, to talk too expansively about what they might or might not have in terms of remaining rubber.
It’s fair to say, the hybrid saved meElfyn Evans
Stalling his Toyota at a junction mid-stage cost Ogier a second or two, while a slightly more conservative approach to the morning’s final test allowed Neuville to sit down for lunch 10.9s ahead.
The top two had maintained a gap of 20-odd seconds over the scrap for third. Rovanperä’s grip on the position was strengthened when Evans was forced to back off with an overheating engine. The front bumper on his car suffered damage on the day’s opening stage (likely as it went nose first over that kicker) only for a stone to find its way through the car’s compromised front-end defences a couple of stages later.
“I was monitoring the situation,” said Evans. “It was only after around three or four kilometers that I decided to switch off the engine. You have a rough idea of what’s going on from some figures we get on the dash and you then have to use your judgement.”
Evans’ foresight to save the overheating engine and rely on battery power was praised throughout the service park.
“It’s fair to say, the hybrid saved me,” he said. “I wouldn’t be in this event and here at the end of the stage without it.”
The fact that he was 1m13s down at the finish ensured his pursuit of the podium was over. Or was it? Anything can happen on the Acropolis.
Such thinking was borne out when action resumed after lunch, as leader Neuville’s rally was wrecked. Along with his suspension.
“We were on the same line [as everybody],” said Neuville. “I don’t know what happened. I think we went over a hole and the suspension broke. After that? I wanted to go home. Ogier hit the same place, but he was able to carry on…”
And carry on into the lead. Ogier was now 12.6s up on Rovanperä. Having been nowhere on this rally 12 months ago, Toyota was suddenly sitting with four of the top five places. The tireless work to find more traction and rough rally pace from the Yaris was paying dividends handsomely.
But with almost half the rally still to run, who was your money on? More pertinently, what would Kalle’s line of attack be? How much would he risk now? His main title rivals Evans and Neuville had hit trouble and slipped back, surely he wasn’t going to fight Ogier for first?
Fastest time on Saturday afternoon’s middle stage showed he was in the mood. But ultimately, the contest was over before it started.
Firing his Yaris up out of the day’s second and final Itea regroup, Ogier noticed something was amiss immediately. No hybrid.
He called the team, the team called him, they booted, re-booted, power-cycled, turned it off and on again. They did everything in their power while working within the rules to bring it back to life. But it wasn’t happening. In the heat of the battle, they’d lost the occasional boost of 130bhp.
Worse was to follow: a pair of rear punctures and damaged rear suspension cost him more than four minutes. Furious would have been a fairly accurate description for the mood aboard the formerly front-running Toyota.
After explaining a miserable end to the day, the magnanimous Ogier paid tribute to Rovanperä.
“Kalle was doing a great job anyway so it’s not… we cannot say that he has stolen this victory. From first on the road yesterday, he has done everything he could so it’s nothing to say about that.
“But, of course, I would have loved to carry on fighting with him until the end.”
Fourteenth held nothing like the same appeal as first.
Having come into Saturday squabbling over third, Rovanperä sat two minutes clear at the top of the table 12 or so hours later.
“It’s been a good day for us,” said the leader. “We were fast today and we were consistent. I was thinking about the championship and not taking the ultimate risk, maybe that helped a little bit in some of the rough section. It’s not nice when things like this happen to a team-mate – it was a nice fight with Séb.”
The man in second now was Hyundai’s Dani Sordo. The Spaniard’s canny approach – which has paid handsome dividends on previous rough rallies with back-to-back Sardinian wins – kept him on the straight and narrow.
Once news of Ogier’s retirement came through, it put Evans into second by 4.1s over Sordo.
Make no mistake, Sordo had the speed when it was needed the most, and Hyundai had made it clear it might be nice to spoil their rivals one-two. Dani agreed and laid down a ripper of a time through the final Saturday stage to lead Evans into Sunday by five seconds.
Sordo’s team-mate Lappi might have been in that podium scrap himself had it not been for a morning puncture followed by a broken driveshaft in the afternoon. He limped through to end the day in fifth place.
Remember that thing about this being the Acropolis and anything happening?
Tänak was up to fourth, a day-and-a-bit after sliding to 32nd overall with his water pump issues.
Day 4 (Sunday)
Despite the rising temperatures and drying rocky roads, a 25-mile Sunday wasn’t going to trouble Rovanperä. He brought it home to rebuild some of the championship lead his Rally Finland misdemeanour had dented a month earlier.
Eyeing the fight between Sordo and Evans for second, Rovanperä knew they would be pushing in the powerstage. So he had a crack too. Why settle for 25 points when there’s 30 on offer?
“It was a nice weekend,” smiled the winner. “I didn’t expect to win here. First on the road on Friday made it complicated, and last year we know we were struggling all the time on this rally. The car really worked this time – thanks to the team for what they did.”
Now, that battle.
Evans went P2 on the opener, lifting nine seconds out of Sordo.
“At least we tried,” said Sordo, now back in third.
Was that a bit of Spanish sledging? Had the towel been thrown in? Not a bit of it.
He pulled 1.3s back in the next one to trail Evans by 2.7s with just the six-mile powerstage remaining. The Toyota man had it under control and handed his team a dream one-two a year on from their own Greek tragedy.
Talking about his rival’s storming start to the day, Sordo smiled thinly: “He had a Spanish breakfast… me!”
Lying beneath his car trying to fix the radiator and coax a boiling Yaris engine into life, Evans would have ripped your arm off for second place.
“It wasn’t so bad in the end,” he said. “Dani had me worried this morning, so this is a bit of a relief.”
That whole ‘get out of jail’ vibe was very much at the forefront of fourth-placed Tänak’s thoughts.
“The whole team was down after Friday,” he said. “It was devastating for all of us all, but we kept fighting and we came back. This is the first rally we finished for a while – it’s nice to be here.”
Lappi rounded out the top five with Katsuta sixth. The Japanese star’s hopes of a top-five were dashed by a double puncture on Saturday afternoon, but there were plenty of positives in a drive which eclipsed a shocker of a performance 12 months ago.
The same could be said for the man in seventh. Andreas Mikkelsen put his Škoda in the wall in the Olympic Stadium last year. He didn’t forget that pain and used it to fuel what was one of the drives of the rally. By his own admission, it was one of his top three rallies he has driven in his career. He rocketed from 16th to first in a brilliant display of controlled, aggressive and ultimately unbeatable WRC2 driving.
The Norwegian did nothing to contain his delight at the finish. And why would he? The last three days had provided some of the toughest competition in years. Just making the finish of this year’s Acropolis was an achievement, but to do it in the fashion Mikkelsen and Rovanperä managed was entirely fitting on the self-styled Rally of Gods.