Hyundai wasn’t expected to win Arctic Rally Finland, let alone lead it from start to finish, and even Ott Tänak admitted as such after victory. Whatever time he was set to gain on his opposition was likely to come from his advantageous road position as a result of retiring from the Monte Carlo Rally, not pure pace as well.
But as it turned out, there were two elements to Hyundai Motorsport’s event preparations that meant it became the team to beat on Finnish roads in the World Rally Championship. How big of a surprise was this, given Hyundai has never made the podium in Finland since returning to the WRC in 2014?
Of course last weekend’s new snow-based event wasn’t that comparable to Finland’s summer rally, but its results on Rally Sweden – the WRC’s usual winter rally – comes to one win in seven attempts.
Tänak told DirtFish that after Hyundai’s pre-event test he had “no feeling in the car and no confidence”, but with team principal Andrea Adamo’s post-Monte words, or should we say demands, in mind he pushed with his engineers to find solutions that could be trialed on the shakedown stage.
“It was a big job, but it paid off in the end,” Tänak matter-of-factly put it.
The other element of Hyundai’s work to be ready for this rally was to work on tire management. After Thierry Neuville’s monster 12.3-second win on the final stage of Saturday under darkness, Adamo explained how testing may have played its part in that stage win – and the team’s wider Arctic success.
“He has done an amazing stage,” Adamo said. “I think he managed very well the tires.
“I have to say that it’s also part of the job done to prepare for Arctic Rally, because we work a lot on the tire management and all these kind of things because it was clearly our very weak point in Monte Carlo.”
It's a long time since I enjoy driving as much as this weekend because the car was just working fine, I had no complaintsThierry Neuville on Hyundai's performance
Neuville had left Monte on the podium, but his team-mates Dani Sordo and Tänak had torrid weekends, as did 2C Competition’s Pierre-Louis Loubet.
“You know when you make something like what we did in Monte Carlo you have to deep analyse your mistakes and understand where you were especially weak and we all understood that in tire management in Monte Carlo we were very bad, to say the least and be kind with ourselves,” Adamo said.
“So we worked very hard and I think what Thierry did [on Saturday] evening has shown that at least we understand well how to manage it quite good.”
Tänak was second fastest on that evening stage, but he won five others and finished 17.5s clear of Toyota’s Kalle Rovanperä in second place despite handling issues with the Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC chassis.
“I still can say that I don’t feel completely confident in the car, but today it worked out nicely and we were able to do as much as needed,” he told DirtFish after taking his second WRC win with the manufacturer.
So despite still clearly not driving a car that favors his strengths, a topic that brewed under the surface throughout his first season with Hyundai in 2020, Tänak was still able to be his usual rapid self on the fast, flowing roads that Arctic Rally Finland offered. The type of roads that require bravery and total trust in the car’s front stability along with the aerodynamics.
Amazingly, the feedback of Neuville and the debuting Oliver Solberg at 2C was quite different, and the top-five pace of Solberg was proof in itself that the car had been improved and set up to provide confidence at high speeds for drivers because this was a driver who had only one day of experience with the aerodynamics of a World Rally Car prior to the event.
Neuville reflected on his rapid SS8 run after finishing the event in third place.
“As always, you feel like you can go quicker but on the other hand maybe I managed the tires better through the whole stage [on Saturday],” he said.
“I had a clean drive and I really enjoyed the stage in general, it’s a long time since I enjoy driving as much as this weekend because the car was just working fine, I had no complaints, it did exactly what I wanted it to do and I just felt really comfortable, despite some really challenging stages on Friday night, it kicked off with a really demanding stage, but we managed well.
“I think we lost between five and eight seconds, or five and 10 seconds probably with some communication issues on Saturday morning, which went a little bit better after some changes on Saturday afternoon and today, but still something we need to improve and work on. But in general really satisfied with the result.”
Had Neuville not had the intercom and language-related issues with new co-driver Martin Wydaeghe, could he have made it a Hyundai one-two?
“There were a couple of moments due to that [communication issue], but also a couple of places where I lost basically time because I braked too much, I understood the corner slower than it was, so it maybe cost us second position but at the end I think we had a trouble-free run in terms of no mistakes.
“The car was working well, the team has done an incredible job, they gave us the opportunity as well to go testing a lot before the event, and it finally worked. Ott in P1, we are in P3, and we closed the gap in the manufacturers’ championship also.”
The momentum may and well truly be in Hyundai’s direction as we go into the break before Rally Croatia.