This time last week, as Saturday’s leg wore on, I was convinced he was going to do it.
Actually, that’s a bit of a white lie. I had quietly predicted that Elfyn Evans on Croatia Rally would just about cling onto first, but Ott Tänak would be a couple of seconds behind, planning to pounce (and do so successfully) on Sunday morning.
Either way, Evans was a dangling carrot and Tänak was closing fast. Swiping multiple seconds per stage from the Toyota, it looked easy for the M-Sport driver. For perhaps the first time, he looked genuinely happy with his Puma Rally1.
But it all changed on a dime.
As the afternoon wore on Tänak suddenly started losing seconds at the same rate he had gained them, and ended Saturday 25.4 seconds off the lead and prepared to settle for second – not push for first – after a mysterious array of problems (believed to be hydraulic and chassis related) undid his bid.
Which leaves the question. Was Tänak’s Croatia Rally result a first place lost, or a solid second place gained?
“I don’t think we should take anything away from Elfyn,” M-Sport team principal Richard Millener tells DirtFish.
“Ultimately he found his pace on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. And I think we shouldn’t underestimate how well he was driving as well.
“There’s obviously certain conditions Ott doesn’t feel as comfortable in – that loop was, well… Croatia Rally is varying conditions on every stage and obviously some sections weren’t to his liking for the car setup.
“The speed at the top is so close and so fast that if you don’t feel 100% on each stage, or as good as close to that, you’re never going to be on the same pace.
“I think probably as soon as he realized the gap had widened again, it was more about preserving the points than trying to risk everything at that point to take the position.”
Millener’s right to hail Evans’ drive. As much as he was shipping seconds in the afternoon, he stepped on it the following day and kept his head to deliver a much-needed victory.
But something dramatically changed between the first and second halves of Saturday’s second loop.
Tänak’s sentiment went from an encouraging (and, for him, chirpy) “the car has been working well” to a typically forthright and disgruntled “what a disaster”.
We know that the setup of these Rally1 cars can be on a knife-edge at times, particularly so this season with the championship frontrunners so closely matched, but compare that to Evans (who himself has been heavily scrutinized over the last few months for his adaptation to Toyota’s Rally1 car) and it was night and day.
Evans’ peaks weren’t as high, but the troughs nowhere near as low. Evans’ rhythm changed mildly, but that was nothing compared to the dramatic swing in comfort behind the wheel that Tänak experienced.
It seems as soon as the conditions are less dry and grip less consistent, the 2019 world champion can’t yet fully get on top of the Puma.
Asked what conditions Tänak is finding most difficult, Millener says: “On the cleaner stuff… well to be honest it’s very difficult to say.
“What we’re doing is when we’re changing the setup to try and get him more comfortable with one set of conditions it probably adversely affects the other set of conditions, so if we’re trying to match it for a dirtier kind of stage then it’s affecting his confidence on the cleaner and vice versa.
“So I don’t think there’s one type of stage that would work the best for him, and that goes to show where we’re at with development.
“We’re just trying to understand with him how best to set the car up and obviously he’s testing as much as possible, pushing us in directions with the things we’re allowed to change – so dampers and chassis setups, he’s pushing us in the direction he wants.
“We’re trying to set up the car for the rally whilst learning what the changes are doing, and then going to each rally with different conditions on each stage as opposed to the whole event which means there’s a lot of factors from the outside coming into one to make it the perfect balance that you want.
“So it’s tricky, because the other side of things is he’s also still getting the results.
“[Fifth on] Monte, first in Sweden, Mexico technical, second again in Croatia – we’ve got to be careful we don’t underestimate what we’re achieving here at the moment.
“So it’s a very fine balance for the guys to be working on.”
Results wise then, regardless of whether you believe he should have won in Croatia or not, nothing about Tänak’s 2023 should be setting off any alarm bells.
But it’s not just setup where he appears to be compounded. M-Sport’s reliability record hasn’t been impeccable either.
And when asked if M-Sport had managed to get to the bottom of Tänak’s late Saturday problem, Millener was decidedly cagey.
“There’s not a huge amount I can say to be honest. But there was nothing fundamental that we’ve seen.
“There was obviously some things going on, but it’s not something we’re going to openly talk about. There’s nothing that worried us to say this is a big problem for the rest of the season if you know what I mean?
“So again there were some setup issues compounded with some other small technical things going on, and the key is to solve any reliability, as Ott said that’s key going forward – especially as we are in a competitive part of the championship and a competitive position, we can’t afford to have any kind of reliability issues.
“So we’re working hard on that as well. But yeah… there’s nothing that we’re completely worried about, put it that way.
“It’s just getting the whole picture to come together as one so we can be even better than we are now.”
It is a fair point Millener raises – if Tänak can be this involved in the race when he’s clearly not at his maximum, that’s hugely encouraging.
But equally it felt like Evans was there for the taking in Croatia, and Tänak wasn’t able to capitalize. How long can we keep talking about Tänak being on the cusp of a setup breakthrough before he actually finds the sweet spot he’s still searching for?
It’s too early in the season to be making any bold championship calls, but every single point counts. Come Japan, the seven points lost to Evans last weekend could feel a lot more painful than they do now.