Is Tänak’s title challenge over already?

The 2019 champion is now on top of his Hyundai after struggling in 2020, yet it's still going wrong

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Questions had already been put Ott Tänak’s way on the subject, but they were always brushed aside. And why wouldn’t they be? His pace has been encouraging, and only a third of the World Rally Championship season had passed.

But lightning shouldn’t strike twice, and it certainly can’t when you’re in the business of gunning for your second world title. Is he now out of the championship race?

Welcome to Ott Tänak’s world. While on any other day most would love a life swap with him, today they certainly wouldn’t.

To say he’s at rock bottom just now would be a touch too ironic, wouldn’t it?

For the second rally in as row, the 2019 world champion has had the lead ripped from his hands through no obvious fault of his own. In Portugal, he had 22.4 seconds over Elfyn Evans before the suspension broke on his Hyundai. Examining the onboard afterwards, he didn’t appear to hit anything untoward.

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This weekend, he had an even healthier lead of 40.5s – this time over Sébastien Ogier – before he ran over a rock and something broke instantly on his Hyundai.

Two rallies, a twice-broken i20 Coupe WRC and two massively missed opportunities.

To cut a long story short, Tänak’s title charge is looking rather flimsy at best, maybe even over at worst.

Ahead of Rally Italy, Tänak was already lagging 34 points behind championship leader Ogier. But with the Toyota driver on course to score 25 for victory, that gap could balloon to almost 59 – excluding any powerstage points to come on Sunday. That would leave Tänak the equivalent of two rally and powerstage victories behind with just seven rallies to go.

Quick DirtFish math would leave the standings after Sardinia looking like this, assuming nobody moves positions tomorrow and excluding powerstage points:

PosDriverTeamRally positionPoints
1Sébastien OgierToyota1st (25pts)104
2Elfyn EvansToyota2nd (18pts)95
3Thierry NeuvilleHyundai3rd (15pts)72
4Takamoto KatsutaToyota4th (12pts)48
5Ott TänakHyundaiRet (0pts)45
6Kalle RovanperäToyotaRet (0pts)41

It’s grim reading. However, suggesting Tänak’s title challenge is now over would be rather premature, for two reasons. Firstly, there are still 210 points left on the table after this weekend so anything can happen. And secondly, there are still reasons to be encouraged.

Portugal felt like a breakthrough for Tänak. Finally the old Toyota magic, where he was able to crush the opposition at what seemed like a canter, was returning. As Tänak himself said, there was light at the end of the tunnel.

The problem now is, a traffic jam has blocked that tunnel exit. Again Tänak showed effortless pace and composure in Sardinia, but again he has nothing to show for it.

That’s the big worry. Potential is all well and good, but it doesn’t yield prizes. You can be the stronger soccer team on the field, but if you don’t put the ball in the back of the net you can’t win the match.

The bigger worry therefore is Tänak’s peace of mind.

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HOW ITALY SHOWS TÄNAK’S INSTINCTIVE DRIVING IS BACK

The i20 and Tänak have now gelled after 11 WRC rallies of waiting

With an even better road position for Safari Rally Kenya and then his native Rally Estonia up next, two wins on the bounce is entirely feasible. But two wins on the bounce was feasible in Portugal and here in Italy; so can the Hyundai hold out?

Kris Meeke, who is doing some punditry and commentary for WRC All Live this weekend, offered his take.

“They’re going to have to do a little bit of head scratching. You can’t just sit back and put that down to bad luck. Dominating two rallies in a row, and no obvious driver error on both occasions.

“The stone, it’s not that big to be honest. For me that size of stone should not take your wheel off. Maybe a puncture if your outside wheel hits the side wall. If I was Ott Tänak I would be asking questions.

“It’s an unfortunate circumstance, nobody wants it to happen, everybody’s trying their best but like I said two events in a row, they’re going to have to do something. We can only speculate, but to happen two events in a row is not a coincidence.”

Tänak will no doubt be thinking something similar, even if he’d never admit so publicly. This season isn’t the first time he’s suffered with mechanical breakages either. It’s a lingering doubt that he simply won’t want to have.

But make no mistake, Hyundai will be, and is, investigating. It is a top team that has won the last two manufacturer’s titles. You don’t do that by building a weak car.

“In my opinion we for sure lost two wins, because I think you have to be Stevie Wonder to not see that we’ve thrust away two wins that were pretty sure,” Hyundai team principal Andrea Adamo told DirtFish.

“But it doesn’t mean that we have people there crying or down in mood. We are working hard to repair the car, tomorrow we are back in business and there are races to go.”

The problem is, it might already be too late. There can be no blunders from here on in, particularly up against the Ogier and Toyota axis that is looking simply irresistible.

And now signed up on a multi-year deal with Hyundai, it could well sting Tänak that it’s the two drivers at his old employer, Toyota, that are emerging as favorites.

The Kenyan response will tell us everything we need to know.

What do you think about Tänak’s title hopes? Leave a comment in the box below.

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