Ypres is an anomaly in the World Rally Championship. It’s the highest of high speed asphalt rallies. Its only WRC appearances have been as a temporary replacement. And it delivered another anomaly: Toyota was not the center of attention. It was neither winning nor losing.
Toyota will have its day. It’s had lots of them already and it will have some more later this year, especially when Kalle Rovanperä is inevitably crowned champion.
Even with Rovanperä’s dramatic crash on Friday morning, all was otherwise well. Scoring only five points matters little when a 94-point gap shrinks to 72.
“It was an enjoyable weekend if we don’t count the crash, so I can be quite happy,” said the man himself rather nonchalantly.
There was nothing nonchalant in the other two camps. One had won; the other was very much lost.
Hyundai had rocked up in Belgium not necessarily expecting victory; rather, it was cautiously optimistic it had a good chance of doing so. All eyes were on Thierry Neuville. He failed to deliver, surprisingly, caught out by one of the many infamous junction cuts littered with gravel.
No matter. Tänak was there to pick up the pieces.
M-Sport would have hoped it would be third time lucky for Craig Breen. His trio of trophies last season had come on the events that made up the 2022 mid-season: Estonia, Finland, Belgium. Breen was anticipated to get a Ford Puma Rally1 back on the podium.
But like Neuville, he too was caught out by Ypres’ unforgiving cuts and ditches, understeering wide on a corner exit and dropping his Puma into the (admittedly very shallow) depths of no return.
It mattered. Fourmaux later broke his car into pieces.
That hulking azure superstructure plonked in Ypres town square which houses Hyundai’s WRC effort is not suddenly a harmonious wonderland. Neuville’s off, for one, cost a potential 1-2 finish. And there is still no team principal.
But Ypres still feels like a milestone. Especially when contrasted to the practical, utilitarian pop-up awnings across the square that housed the purple panelbeaters.
Even a long-running troublesome saga M-Sport was desperate to solve was coming to an end in the other camp. Oliver Solberg’s nightmare was finally being woken up from.
He’d coughed in a plume of fumes on the Monte and gone off. Then he’d crashed some more in Croatia and, devastatingly, the first proper corner of Rally Finland.
Solberg found redemption in Belgium by being cautious. Two spares were strapped into the boot at all times, just in case. That #2 i20 would finish come hell or high water. And by simply driving to the finish without risk or fuss, without care for where the others around him were, fourth place was the reward.
There are parallels aplenty between Solberg and Fourmaux’s season, so it was apt they were pitched directly against one another. Fourmaux, though, let ambition get the better of him, just as it had in Sardinia when Kalle was chasing him down for fifth.
He’d felt slighted by the police stop that had left him late for Wijtschate’s second pass by two minutes and cost him a crucial 20s in penalties.
“Now we are back in fourth sportingly,” he said at the end of the day, while fifth. It was his to reclaim, it seemed. And he went for it.
And like in Portugal, when he went for it, he ended with nothing.
Rewind further and Monte Carlo is but a distant memory for both teams. A time that onward progress has long forgotten, which is a great relief for Hyundai and a source of longing for M-Sport.
Tänak ended Monte Carlo with his Hyundai planted nose-first into a rockface and Solberg withdrawn, barely able to see for all the fumes ingressing the cockpit irritating his youthful eyes. Neuville was an irate fifth, dragging Rally1’s answer to doing homework the morning it’s due to fifth place effectively against the car’s wishes.
Today it’s M-Sport that feels lost. Not because its car was late or breaking down every five minutes; not because there was no-one whose sole job it was to helm the ship. It had all those areas down. But what few sprinkles of magic dust Loeb’s stunning Monte win remained fluttered away when its Pumas visited ditches last week.
Yet again Tänak demonstrated what making the most of a tricky hand looks like. He needed luck – Rovanperä chucking it off, Neuville chucking it off and Scott Martin making a rare error. But when that luck was presented to him, he snatched it up with aplomb, as usual.
Ypres showed it was a true drivers’ rally, catching out the two obvious favorites for victory. It demonstrated too that M-Sport team principal Richard Millener was right when he said throwing money at marginal technical gains wasn’t an effective strategy.
Throwing money at drivers might be, though. Tänak is earning every last cent of his pay packet right now.
It is, in some ways, a tragedy. M-Sport had it all figured out. It had studied longer and harder than all its classmates. It knew the subject matter front to back. But it’s been for close to nought.
It’s been a long time now since that graft was rewarded. So long ago that January’s class clown has transformed into a star pupil, achieving beyond its perceived limitations.
Rallying can be unfair. But that’s no anomaly.