Markko Märtin is the most practical of people. And I know I try his patience. I think I might have been doing just that on Saturday evening. But I was worried.
I make no bones about the fact that I was rooting for an Ott Tänak win on Sunday. We can all agree on his role of the underdog and beyond that, it was shaping up to be an almighty story. But was it just me that kept on looking over Ott’s shoulder?
For those of you not familiar with what was going on in Jyväskylä, I suggest you look up the BBC’s Natural World and dial down some David Attenborough on wolves hunting a buffalo.
How do they do it? They take the herd, separate themselves a buffalo, surround it, chase it, chase it some more, try to confuse it, then eat it.
What did Toyota do in Finland? It separated itself a Hyundai, surrounded it, chased it, chased it some more, tried to confuse it (although the case was probably more Tänak trying to confuse it…), then failed to catch it.
It was that lovely moment in the wildlife film when the deer or the rabbit gets away.
Tänak was that deer. That rabbit.
On the eve of the final day, Tänak was 8.4 seconds to the good. Was it enough? Yeah, but really, was it? What if Rovanperä pulled out one of those diamond Kalle days? What if the i20 N Rally1 coughed?
Markko looked at me. So I shut up.
“David,” he said, quite testily. “It’s better than him being 8.4 seconds behind.”
Good point. The best of points.
And with that, I stopped being a drongo and remembered this was Ott Tänak we were talking about.
And wasn’t he just a bit good. In fact, wasn’t he absolutely fantastic.
Tell me you saw this coming and I’ll tell you I don’t believe you. Nobody saw this coming. Nobody could possible have.
Three weeks ago, Tänak raised the white flag after Friday morning and surrendered his home territory to the championship-leading Toyota driver.
Do you know what? I think that loss fuelled the fire that burned brightly inside Ott when he landed on the Gulf of Finland’s north side. There was the desire to repay the favor.
More than that, last week was Finland. And everybody wants a Finland win. If you’ve got two, you really want three.
But still, what Tänak did was extraordinary. Ordinarily, I’m utterly impartial about who wins. It goes with the job. But not this time.
On Thursday, angry Ott described the car as a nightmare. The weekend, he assured me, was going to be a long one.
Hyundai 1-2 through Harju. Thierry Neuville leading. Eyebrow raised? Not according to Neuville.
“You know the story,” he said. “For me, I will push hard – I know I can make time in the superspecial.”
Fair enough. The four Toyotas – all wheeled out from TGR HQ in the city’s suburbs – were ready to do their thing as soon as the event headed for the forests the following morning.
Don’t forget, a Yaris hasn’t been beaten on this event since 2016. And they weren’t competing in 2016. A Toyota not winning in Jyväskylä was fanciful – especially with last year’s winner Elfyn Evans and 2017 master Esapekka Lappi lining up.
But also don’t forget, two of those wins were taken by Tänak when he was a Toyota man.
On Friday, the Yaris men didn’t even see Tänak coming. Bamboozled by his talk of scary cars and shaking hands, the locals expected to see one of two things happen before the end of the working week. The #8 i20 would either break or it would be in the trees.
Genuinely, nobody really gave too much credibility that Tänak could continue at the pace he was making. It made no sense. How could he? The car was rarely straight, the leader making pizzas galore in an effort to keep it from pitching him and co-driver Martin Järveoja off the road.
Undoubtedly, Rovanperä struggled with running order and the worst of the gravel on the season’s fastest roads. Yes, you could scoff at the concept of cleaning on stages which were devoid of junctions or too many slow corners, but it was a thing. For Kalle to be sitting fourth and 21 seconds behind on Friday night, the cleaning effect was very definitely a thing.
Granted, he wasn’t feeling his Yaris in a way he had done for much of the five rallies he’d won so far, but 21 seconds behind Tänak didn’t explain all of that away.
Tänak stole the march. Until the final stage on Friday, he was first or second fastest. That was enough to put him at the top of the timesheets. And once he was there, there was no shifting him.
Even Ott rated this one his best result. Not the best he’d driven, but the best result.
He risked everything and was rewarded with rallying’s second biggest prize behind the season-long title.
He was a magician. To craft a win from a car which was nowhere on very similar roads last month was nothing short of magic.
But I also think he was something of an illusionist as well. I don’t doubt the car was something of a handful, it absolutely was. But I’m really not sure it was quite as bad as Tänak made out. He got his wish though. A vocal Thursday ensured Toyota sent its cars out with a marginally more conservative setup than it might have done had it have seen the Estonian onslaught coming its way.
By the time it saw it, it was further compromised by changeable weather on Saturday and the fact that Ott had grown accustomed to life on the knife edge.
As Colin Clark continually pointed out, he was a warrior. And he absolutely was.
Having watched him haul the Hyundai back into line with the thing singing on the limiter in top, I asked Ott how he did it. How did he have the presence of mind to do what needed to be done to avoid what would have been a plane crash of shunt.
“Instinct,” came the reply from the admittedly rather ashen-faced one.
Tänak’s mood was invariably good, at times even a bit giggly. It was like he couldn’t believe he was getting away with it either.
But get away with it he did. For three days, he danced with the devil and for three days he dodged a chasing pack. On Sunday afternoon, he delivered a most emphatic win.
Question is, can Hyundai use this victory as a launchpad to lift the spirits of the whole team?
Surely, deputy team director Julien Moncet couldn’t be happier. His car has won two of the last four WRC rounds and there’s every indication Neuville will be able to take Tänak’s lead and hang it all out when the series arrives in his Belgian backyard in 10 days.
Winning the fastest rally of the season means you have a fast car. And a very fast driver.
At times, Moncet must have been watching from behind not just his hands, but the hands of anybody he could convince to stand in front of him. It was a wild, wild ride.
And a quite marvellous story of an Estonian try-hard coming across to Finland and making it very, very good.
And making Finland very, very good as well.
This year’s event was back in its usual summer spot for the first time since the pre-COVID 2019 running. It was also the first time the fans had been let loose on the city for three years. It was amazing. Typically amazing.
The centre of Jyväskylä was converted into a full-on rally town and the stages were packed as usual. Anybody catch the Kalle Arena in the Moksi stage on Saturday? Incredible.
And Kakaristo on the same day? Even more special. One side of the road chanted ‘Kalle’ the other side responded with ‘Rovanperä’.
And it all started with Harju on Thursday night.
“Did you hear it?” asked Jonne Halttunen, Kalle’s co-driver. “It was amazing. I never heard anything like this at Rally Finland.”
He was absolutely right. Finns are enormously reserved (there is the odd one who gets a bit more boisterous once they’ve quenched a week-long thirst on a Saturday night…) and always have been. They don’t go for the big show of emotion.
The most I’ve seen before this year is a hearty round of applause to greet a Jari-Matti Latvala win. Or a nod of approval for Mikko Hirvonen’s podium-topping brilliance.
But this was different. This was raw emotion for a 21-year-old Jyväskylä lad who has helped re-ignite the passion for rallying in its spiritual home.
The atmosphere throughout the week was sensational.
And we really can vouch for that throughout the week thing. You might have noticed, DirtFish was on the scene for a little while longer at round eight.
We have to say a massive thanks to everybody in the Toyota team for making us so welcome and especially the PR guru that is Hans De Bauw for going the extra mile and making our first shot at Carpool Rallyoke such a success. It was enormous fun and, at times, incredibly enlightening – not least some of the music choices.
J-ML and Rovanperä assured us, they were both happy on Sunday night. They headed for the suburbs and the team’s Jyska base with a bigger lead in both championships. That was priority number one.
But it was Tänak who dodged the wolves and took the biggest smile home.