Last year Colin Clark got very cross with my list of the 10 best drivers in the World Rally Championship. Very cross. He reckons 10 means 10 and you definitely shouldn’t be allowed 11.
Instead of compiling our lists independently, we decided to get together over a mince pie and argue for an hour or two about who goes where on the season’s big list. Here’s DirtFish’s top-10 drivers of 2020.
(This year, there’s 12…)
Spoiler alert: if you don’t want to know the top 10 until after you’ve listened to the podcast, look away now…
This one is slightly complicated, with the DirtFish editors insisting I had to start from 10th place and work down to number one – Clark and I had gone the other way around on the podcast, diving directly into the top spot.
To save you trying to listen to the podcast in reverse, I’ll summarize the thinking behind the WRC top-10 equivalent of a square peg being forced into a round hole.
The top six drivers, more or less, decided themselves. We all knew Ogier, Evans, Rovanperä, Tänak, Neuville and Sordo – the rally winners plus Kalle – would be in there somewhere. It was just the order that needed some debating.
It was the lower reaches of the league that needed sorting. And that’s where we came unstuck. Eventually, there was an agreement to put the likes of Gus Greensmith and Pontus Tidemand on the sidelines.
Those two were kind of OK. Not too much pushback there, but when Colin announced he was about to commit blasphemy, I wondered what was coming.
He then removed Sébastien Loeb from the equation. Big call. Brave move. Especially when Loeb made the podium on what could be his final ever WRC outing in a factory car. But that Turkish finale was balanced by a pretty miserable Monte. Let’s not get bogged down in that quarrel again here.
Let’s move on and answer the question of what to do with M-Sport’s Finns?
We’re probably in agreement that this hasn’t been M-Sport’s finest season. The team has taken a serious beating from coronavirus in terms of redundancies, the downturn in sales and the impact of those two factors on the potential for testing and delivery of development on what remains a very capable Ford Fiesta WRC.
So where did we put Esapekka Lappi and Teemu Suninen? In terms of points scored, they were sixth and seventh respectively. And that, for me, was enough to bag at least one of them a place inside the DirtFish top-10. Clark argued otherwise. And convinced me. Almost.
In the end, we sought compromise and handed them joint 11th place in our top-10.
The chief beneficiaries of the M-Sport Ford men’s positions outside the top-10 were Mads Østberg (ninth) and Takamoto Katsuta (10th).
Østberg was the class of WRC2 and forced his rivals to count another score in an effort to depose him from his rightful place at the head of the table. He deserved the title as much for his speed on the stages as for his development work with Citroën’s C3 R5.
But what about the fact that his hadn’t been the fastest Rally2 car out there? Østberg was regularly eclipsed by the quickest WRC3 runner. Eric Camilli in Monte Carlo, Jari Huttunen in Sweden, for example.
Should Østberg be penalized for taking a longer-term approach to the season? He kept his eye on the bigger picture of his nearest WRC2 rival and drove accordingly to become a world champion.
Oliver Solberg was the quickest Rally2 car in Estonia, but his pace across a changeable Monza was one of the highlights of 2020.David Evans
So, if becoming a world champion’s enough to garner a place in the top-10, what about Huttunen and Junior WRC champion Tom Kristensson? I refer you to the podcast for an audio output on that argument…
Somehow I jumped straight to nine. Why Taka at 10? Simply, we reckoned there was some serious improvement in his stage times this season. And he’s a lovely bloke. And his co-driver’s a very good mate of Clarky’s (and mine). Actually, the main reason was that Colin and I wouldn’t have dared set foot on Barritt Island (also known as Mull) had we not installed Taka and Dan in the top-10.
Lame, I know. But missing one Mull Rally this year is bad enough, Clark and I can’t face another season without our annual West Coast pilgrimage.
Craig Breen. Difficult one. Could we justify a place in the top-10 for a driver who had only started two rallies? Especially when one of those rallies – Sweden – offered a mediocre seventh place.
Two years ago, Breen finished runner-up in Sweden in a Citroën which was being labelled undriveable right, left and center. But in February, in horrible conditions and out of the car for a while, he struggled to show that same speed.
No such issues in Estonia. I was going to use the argument about seventh place in Sweden being something to do with being out of the i20 Coupe WRC for a long time. But he was out of the car longer between Torsby and Tartu and landed an absolute peach of a result straight out of lockdown. Second, just behind team-mate Tänak was an absolute blinder from Breen on the season’s fastest rally. Eighth it is. No argument there.
Oliver Solberg was seventh by mutual DirtFish agreement. Quickest Rally2 car in Estonia impressed, but his pace across a changeable Monza was one of the highlights of 2020.
Now, the top six.
To start with Clark was having none of Thierry Neuville. And I was struggling to convince him after another tricky season for the Belgian, but you simply can’t ignore the man who won the Monte. So he’s sixth.
Rovanperä is one place ahead in fifth. At the start of the season, Rovanperä was busy telling us all he was a bit concerned about coming to terms with aero grip on high-speed rallies.
How stupid were we for believing him? First fast rally – Sweden – and bang, he’s absolutely on it and nudging Ogier aside off the podium’s bottom-step with a stormer of a run through a sodden powerstage.
Top-five on every round he finished (Sardinia was the only one he missed after running fractionally wide and removing the car’s left-rear against a tree) he’s richly deserving of his spot in our very own top-five.
Now, the top four. And Dani Sordo is fourth. I’ll admit, I took some convincing on this one. I was thinking more along the lines of sixth.
But Colin was adamant, going with the argument that this was Dani’s best season to date. With two podiums from the last two rounds, it was hard to argue, not least because I’d done the math and figured out that the Spaniard had led for 40-0dd percent of the stages he’d competed on this year. And won 28% of those stages. It might not be 28 exactly, but I’ve lost the piece of paper I did the working out on… Regardless, it was a lot.
Caught up in Col’s thinking, I did point out Sordo had only done three rallies this year. Make that two and a bit, he was out of México earlier than any of us.
I must admit, I attacked my fourth post-argument mince pie still not completely convinced of Sordo’s place in our top four.
So I did more digging and looked back into Rally México. I take it back. Yes, he was enjoying a cleaner road than the others, but he was, while his Hyundai played ball, absolutely on it.
And seeing the wheel-thumping, video-beeping frustration when his event went south reminds one that, while he’s the nicest of nice drivers out of the car, his competitive edge is just as sharp as ever aboard the i20 Coupe WRC.
Number three sort of crystalized one of those issues with this whole top-10 idea. What are we judging here? On one hand we’ve handed out fourth to a bloke who did less than half a season, then Colin was thinking about arguing against Tänak in third place – he sort of thought he should be lower.
Granted, Ott stacked it properly on round one. But after that, he drove well to take comfortable podiums on every rally he completed without a problem. He stormed his own backyard with a spectacular success in Estonia before being robbed of a shot at a successful title defence by successive mechanical issues in Turkey and Sardinia.
Tänak takes third at a canter. Don’t listen to Clark.
But I did have to listen to the Scotsman’s nonsense when it came to our one-two. He insisted, to the point of not making me another cup of tea, that Ogier had to sit ahead of Evans in our ranking. I played devil’s advocate and tried to push for #1 in our charts making up for one of the FIA’s silver medals. But I failed.
In all honesty, it’s hard to argue against Ogier. Were it not for engine failure in Turkey, the gap would have been a good bit closer going to the final round in Monza. And we can listen to all the ifs, buts and maybes we like regarding the corner that caught Elfyn out that Saturday in the mountains above Bergamo, but it doesn’t matter. Ogier won the rally and was a very worthy champion.
So that’s how we got 12 drivers into our top 10. Agree? Feel free to tell us so on our social channels. Disagree? Probably best keep those thoughts to yourselves – unless you agree with me and disagree with Scotland. If that’s the case, feel free to shout in his direction.
Until next year…
DirtFish’s top-10 WRC drivers of 2020 – The full list
11 Esapekka Lappi/Teemu Suninen
10 Takamoto Katsuta
9 Mads Østberg
8 Craig Breen
7 Oliver Solberg
6 Thierry Neuville
5 Kalle Rovanperä
4 Dani Sordo
3 Ott Tänak
2 Elfyn Evans
1 Sébastien Ogier