Don’t play poker with Ott Tänak. Just don’t. Talking to him in Turkey last September, he quietly, but firmly, poured cold water on speculation of a deal with Hyundai. Staring across the service park at Andrea Adamo, the Estonian searched for the right words.
He found them.
“I think we’re not such good friends now…” he said with a wry smile.
Actually, their friendship was warming up nicely. So much so that, six weeks later, the news broke that Tänak had sealed that friendship with a two-year deal to depart Toyota Gazoo Racing – the team with which he’d just won his maiden world championship title – to drive one of Adamo’s i20 Coupe WRCs.
As you can see from his day job-driven social media, Tänak’s a fairly private chap. Sharing the thought process that took him from Puuppola to Alzenau has never been particularly high on his priorities. But getting to know the off-camera Adamo was important.
Tanak says: “He’s a very straightforward person of course. It’s easy to speak to him, it’s always yes and no, so you know what is possible and what is not.
“Anyway, I believe the way he’s working is easy to understand and, for sure, what you see in front of camera and what is actually behind the camera is normally different things. He’s a good guy, he’s doing a good job and I believe he’s managing his people very well.
“I didn’t know Adamo so well, I saw him only on the TV and in some press conferences. We never had too many personal conversations.
“But during the year we had a couple of dinners and started to know each other more. I started to understand what is the principles and the targets for the team, and, let’s say, I wanted to be part of this journey.”
That decision, it’s fair to say, sent shock waves through the sport. At Toyota he would be an undisputed team leader in the fastest car driving for the team with the biggest budget. He shunned that to share top billing with Thierry Neuville.
Tänak says: “I felt quite strong in the old team and the old car, and for sure it was a big decision. I felt it myself as well that it was going to be a decision that needed big balls. It was never going to be easy to make this choice, but in the end we did and so far I’m very happy where I am.
“Of course, the time into a new team has been strange. We’ve done a couple of tests, but then all the events have been cut off for us. They’ve been shortened, and all kind of strange thing.
“To manage with the team and to know the people, it’s been quite good. The team is professional. I guess they’ve had new drivers before as well, but for sure they’ve been working very hard for myself to make it as easy as possible.
“Generally, I’m definitely looking forward. There have been many new things coming, and they’ve been really open for driver feedback. I would say this is something that definitely makes a team very strong, if they are happy to give the driver whatever they want to make them feel comfortable.”
Tänak certainly looks comfortable right now. He has done, in all honesty, since he got the monkey off his back and started winning in Sardinia three years ago.
Since then, he’s looked capable of winning everywhere and every rally. Suddenly, the depths of a 2013 season on the sidelines seems a long, long time ago.
“I got older,” says Tänak quietly. “I had time to look back and, I guess, that’s something I needed. In 2012, everything was happening fast, it was my first full season and I guess I had many mistakes, quite a bit of pressure on myself. Obviously, I was not able to handle it all.
“I was able to do some good stage times, but never a good event. Altogether, I guess it was a good time to back off, to take some time. Of course, it’s never good to take a complete break from the championship, so that was definitely not optimal, but, OK, we had to do it.”
Now he is that bit older, is there anything the 2020 Ott would tell his younger version? He’s not sure how worthwhile the advice would be.
He notes: “To really give any advice to young drivers, I’m not sure they really listen. Some things you need to learn yourself. I was obviously not learning too quickly, but rallying is complicated.
“There are so many different things happening, they are long events, a lot to do, a lot to manage, a lot to understand.
“It’s a lot about the experience and then, yeah, of course you need to be talented but you also need to be able to learn quickly and take in a lot of information. Obviously, I was not able to do it at that moment. Maybe some things were happening a bit too quickly.”
Except winning. For three years straight he led in Poland and looked ready to break his WRC duck. Did he ever fear the breakthrough might not come?
“I would not say it was not going to come, but it seemed to be difficult to get the first win, yes. I was definitely very disappointed that I wouldn’t get my first win in Poland.
“And in the end, I couldn’t win Poland. This was one of my favorite events, a lot of fans there and so many people. And also a lot of people from Estonia.
“The stages were really enjoyable, but from the other side they were also quite safe for drivers because you were driving between the fields and it was not really too risky.
“Of course, spectator numbers we had there was quite incredible, so that side needed some work, but from our side it was really enjoyable and it was the favorite event. But, yeah, somehow I had a few times on the podium and the last time we were fighting with Thierry [Neuville], but then I crashed. It was a sad end to this story.”
One of the defining images of Rally Poland will always be Sébastien Ogier in 2016 hoisting Tänak onto his shoulders and carrying him back to his car after he lost the lead with a penultimate-stage puncture.
“At that moment,” Tänak says, “I really didn’t know Séb so well. Of course, he was a star driver and I was nobody. I’d said hello to him before, but that was actually all.
“That moment [in Poland] was quite heart-breaking for myself and I was happy to take some space and breathe a bit. Of course, I was disappointed with what had happened some time ago, but yeah it was quite a surprise [to be carried by Ogier].”
The following year, the pair – along with Elfyn Evans – would share the greatest of times at M-Sport. Ogier won the title, Evans won his first WRC round and the trio gelled under the guidance of Malcolm Wilson.
“Working with Séb was also a positive surprise,” Tänak says. “Many people warned me that Séb is a very difficult guy and he is doing some mental jobs and tricks and things like this.
“It sounded quite scary, but in the end he came and he was a professional guy. Definitely one of the best team-mates I’ve ever had. I believe we worked quite well together, we worked quite hard and then he won the drivers’ and we won the manufacturers’ [title] so I believe we did a good job.
“I’d been working with Elfyn longer, I know how hard he is working, since 2014 and 2015 we have been working together a lot and there were moments we were testing together and we were sharing the car.
“We’ve spent many hours in the forest to get ourselves going, and of course it’s good to see him doing well finally. Of course, I don’t wish him too well – I still need to beat him, but he’s there and, for sure, he’s achieved what he’s been dreaming of. He’s on the level now.”
Wilson’s patience was tested at times with Tänak and Evans, but once again, the Cumbrian’s eye for talent has shown itself to be bang on.
But now, like everybody else in the sport, Tänak’s ready to go back to work. The only downside will be leaving his family to travel again.
Together for the last two months, Ott’s enjoyed home life.
“I was out of the car for quite a long time in 2013,” he says, “but definitely this is the longest time I’ve been with my family. In a way, when we go back [to work] it could be tough, but they will be happy to see the friends they have missed and I miss racing.
“We have all been missing something, so in a way in the beginning, when we first go back, it’s maybe not going to be so hard – but in the end we are really getting used to each other and this is nice.”
One thing is sure, there will be a big hug waiting for him when he walks back into Hyundai and the arms of his firm friend and team principal…