Coming into Rally Finland week, well, we all assumed we knew who would be the victor. It seemed totally obvious.
Ask any neutral in the service park and they’d have backed Kalle Rovanperä, or at the very least Toyota, for the win. Even Hyundai would have pegged him as the favorite.
But heading into Saturday night, that’s not the case at all. In fact, it’s Ott Tänak who remarkably still leads, holding a 8.4 second advantage over the championship leader with four stages left to play for.
It was a bit more understandable to see Rovanperä slightly further down the order on Friday. He was first on the road, and he has a habit of being more relaxed on the opening day before turning the screw on Saturday.
But in Finland, he couldn’t quite get that screw to turn enough times.
Every time he tried to step up a gear, Tänak just about had an answer for him. The times trading between the pair were tight, and on SS17 it was so tight there was nothing to separate the pair at all when they both set identical stage times.
It was expected that Rovanperä would fight for victory in Finland. Of course it was. He’s won five of the last six rallies after all.
But it wasn’t the case for Tänak and his performance has left Hyundai deputy team principal Julien Moncet “spellbound”.
“It has been absolutely impressive. It’s been an epic day,” said Moncet.
“Ott has been completely outstanding, kept us spellbound all day.
“If you look, we are over eight stages they are fighting with Kalle one tenth here, one tenth there, sometimes even the same time at the end of the stages. It has been crazy.
“I think Ott really gave it everything. He pushed the car to the limit.
“Honestly we were not thinking we could be in this position yesterday and even less today because we knew that the stages this morning were maybe less in our favor.
“But still we are here, eight seconds gap, four stages to go, fastest stages tomorrow.
“It’s a lot in Finland and not that much on others.
“So fingers crossed we will have a good look at the car tonight, we will prepare it to give him maximum performance all what we can and we will go for it definitely.”
Tänak’s team-mate Thierry Neuville was equally complimentary.
He’s not only been unable to set similar times to Tänak, but he’s been unable to get anywhere near the pace of his team-mate at any stage this weekend, despite feeling fairly comfortable with his i20 N Rally1 car.
Noting that Neuville has had an error-free rally and yet ended Saturday 2m05.5s behind Tänak demonstrates how his team-mate has been on another planet in Finland.
But what has impressed Neuville the most is the fact that despite pushing the car to beyond its limit, Tänak has so far failed to make a single significant mistake.
“I have to congratulate him today. He did everything to defend the position,” said Neuville.
“I think his gap increased a little bit, he did what he could and it’s impressive to see that all four drivers were doing no mistakes.
“A couple of moments here and there, but they also drive at the speed they are going so it was impressive.
“I think he’s driving a bit over the limit. It’s what he says and I could believe that.
“But yeah on such a long day like today, obviously no mistakes while going at that speed, it was a good job.”
Regardless of whether Tänak goes on to win the rally on Sunday or not, there will be many questions circling as to whether this has been his best ever World Rally Championship drive.
Listen to Moncet and you’d believe that’s definitely the case by the way he’s talking about his talisman.
But Tänak himself isn’t as convinced.
“No no it’s definitely not the best drive, but still we’ve been trying very hard,” he said.
“In this zone for sure I’m quite happy with what we’ve done today, we’ve been able to just keep the Toyotas behind and it’s not been an easy job.
“In a dream life I would imagine myself driving a bit different, a bit cleaner and smoother but at the moment it’s not really possible.
“So we need to attack a bit more, and at the moment this way the times are coming so it’s the way to go.”
Tänak may have been hit with a fist full of modesty in that interview.
The Hyundai has struggled to match the Toyota consistently all year. But here, on the fastest stages in the world, Tänak has them all under control – for now.
It might be a different story four stages later when the winner of Rally Finland is revealed, but right now, we have one of the most tantalizing finishes to a rally for some time just beyond us.
And that’s all down to Tänak finding another gear hidden deep within himself and his car.
There’ll be no holding him back tomorrow either, with the instruction from above as tantalizing as you like.
“We are here to win,” said Moncet. “So if you look at the championship and so on I think the best thing and the only thing we can do is to win.
“It’s a bit all or nothing. Second position is not an option for me.”