The headline statistics made for grim reading. Since its return to the World Rally Championship in 2014, Hyundai Motorsport had won just eight stages of Rally Finland prior to 2021 – and three of those were on the unrepresentative asphalt streets of Harju.
It had never featured on the podium, let alone had a car that was capable of winning the event.
So how did the team go from this to more than doubling its tally of stage wins and getting two cars on the podium in 2021?
“Definitely we didn’t come with too high hopes, it was not really that we were favorites. Definitely the Toyota boys were the favorites so we knew where we are from,” Ott Tänak admitted to DirtFish fresh from securing second place in Jyväskylä.
“I think the guys at the factory made some good progress in the last two years and it’s maybe just a shame there was no Rally Finland last year where we could give our first push and gain experience because now we came for the last time with these cars,” he added.
“We managed to improve many things but not everything and this [rally], if it’s not all perfect it’s a bit tricky.”
Things certainly seemed close to perfect on Friday though. Aside from Takamoto Katsuta’s stage win for Toyota on Harju, Hyundai dominated the day with Craig Breen and Tänak taking two stage wins apiece.
Tänak had warned pre-event that the encouraging upturn of Hyundai performance on faster rallies like Estonia and Arctic Finland wasn’t relevant because of the unique nature of the Jyväskylä roads.
In short, the undulating elevation of the Rally Finland stages made it an entirely different proposition to nail in terms of set-up as it “just makes the car a bit light”; unlike Estonia for example where “there are not so many crests, it’s mostly just the big jumps”.
“Finland is very, very unique with that and it will be something that obviously Toyota guys have been very strong in the past,” Tänak stated.
But Toyota was wary. Team principal Jari-Matti Latvala admitted Hyundai’s progress was so impressive that it was “on the same level now here in Finland” as Toyota – a team that developed its Yaris WRC on the roads of the area.
“We saw it already in the shakedown that the speed was very high, and we were slightly concerned,” said Latvala. “We were expecting them to be strong and they were strong today.
“For me they’ve been stronger than ever in Finland but it seems that they have been doing some very good work.”
Elfyn Evans hitting the mark on his pre-event test and then really hitting peak confidence on Saturday restored what many had perceived to be natural order. Evans stole the lead early in the morning and never let go of it.
Tänak cheekily remarked that there was “finally one driver who shows what Toyota is capable of in Finland”, but he wasn’t completely happy with life aboard his i20 Coupe WRC either, feeling that he’d gone the wrong way with his differential settings on the test.
Hyundai and Tänak responded in the afternoon though; Tänak feeling happier with the car in second-pass conditions. Ultimately he lost out on a third straight Rally Finland win, but surely it must’ve felt like a win given he’d got so close to the domineering car which won the last two editions in his own hands.
“No, it feels like second place!” was Tänak’s perhaps predictable response.
He wasn’t for giving up any technical secrets, quipping that the Hyundai was quicker “with more throttle” when asked what had been changed to transform its performance. But this was a hugely encouraging turnaround, leaving Tänak fundamentally pleased.
“I enjoyed the fight,” he said. “I didn’t enjoy completely the performance and the behavior [of the car] but I definitely gave everything from my side. Definitely it was nice to make sure Elfyn has earned this win and he has, I mean he did a great job.”
His team principal Andrea Adamo was aligned with him. As a born winner, Adamo viewed Hyundai’s two-three finish as a “half-done job” but was full of praise for his engineering team for ending their usual Finland struggles.
“I want to say thank you to my people, because I’ve seen a spirit of winning and what I always fight against from the first moment I become team principal was this ghost or monkey that were around, as a sort of resignation that in Sweden and in Finland, anyhow we will not be competitive and it’s something that makes me crazy,” he said.
“And this result showed that the people that are working with me and I’m proud to lead are good, and if we want we can do. And then there are certain limits that we cannot bypass but I [don’t] think that any of you would have bet one euro before this rally that we would have second and third position, fighting for the lead not because everyone else stopped.”
He’s right, nobody had really foreseen Hyundai being quite this strong on one of the WRC’s blue-riband events. We won’t be making that same mistake once the new Rally1 cars hit these stages in 2022.