Ott Tänak has recorded his second World Rally Championship victory for Hyundai on Arctic Rally Finland, leading a WRC round from start to finish for the first time in his career to haul himself back into the early title race.
Tänak’s final winning margin was 17.5 seconds over pre-event favorite Kalle Rovanperä, who saw off Thierry Neuville by just 2.3s after an intense fight for the second podium place.
Rovanperä’s final-stage effort was good enough for the powerstage win and elevates the 20-year-old into the lead of the world championship.
Elfyn Evans and Craig Breen were embroiled in a similarly tight fight before the powerstage, with Breen just 3.6s ahead of Evans in fourth overall. But after losing 6.5s on the penultimate test, Breen responded to beat Evans by 5.2s, setting the second-fastest powerstage time to secure fourth overall.
Both of those Toyota vs Hyundai final stage battles influenced the championship standings after round two. Rovanperä leads the way with 39 points, four ahead of Neuville, with Sébastien Ogier and Evans tied on 31. Two powerstage points and the rally win puts Tänak on 27.
Ogier’s weekend was a bit of a disaster. Warmer conditions than anticipated made his road sweeping duties even tougher on Friday afternoon, leaving him down in ninth after the first leg and consequently in a poor position on the road for the entire rally.
The reigning world champion was restricted to fighting for scraps thereafter but rose to sixth after the seventh of 10 stages, only to chuck his Toyota into the roadside snow on the final corner of the final stage on Saturday.
Ogier lost the rear at the previous corner, which put him off-line for a tightening left-hander. He therefore ran into the snow; the nose of his Yaris WRC was pulled in and he was stuck. Incredibly he and Julien Ingrassia dug the car out, but any hopes of a points finish were gone.
“That’s the way it is, onto the next one,” he said at the end of the powerstage.
Aside from a hairy moment on Saturday morning when his i20 Coupe WRC bounced off a couple of snowbanks, Tänak’s weekend was the exact opposite of Ogier’s.
He was flawless, winning six of the 10 stages, and never looked like being toppled.
“First when you come to a new event you never know what to expect and this weekend we came to Finland, the home country of Toyota and Rovanperä was expected to be strong so the pressure was there for sure,” the winner said.
“In the end I think we did a very good weekend, just enough but nothing too much.”
Rovanperä wasn’t on the form that the pundits had expected in Lapland – a costly trip into a snowbank on the opening stage setting the tone for the rally.
He was still third fastest and was never off the provisional podium throughout the rally, but he struggled with a Yaris that wasn’t quite handling how he wanted.
Second place is nevertheless Rovanperä’s best ever WRC result.
“This weekend I wanted to fight for the top place and I made a mistake and we were not in the optimal pace but I have to say I was pushing the whole weekend, maximum all the time,” he said.
“We did everything what we could and it’s nice to get the P2 here. It was not the perfect weekend but quite nice.”
Neuville replicated the third-place finish he scored on the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally with what was a quietly brilliant performance.
There were still communication issues with co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe – particularly on Saturday morning – on what was just the pair’s second WRC and third ever rally together, but a superb tire-management strategy on Saturday afternoon, as he saved one new tire for the final stage, yielded an emphatic stage win that brought him into contention for second place.
“I’m satisfied with our weekend despite some small issues and we don’t need to forget we were starting third on the road, so that is a good result considering our starting position,” Neuville surmised.
Breen had been closest to rally winner Tänak in the event’s early phase, but he soon slipped backwards on Saturday and Sunday with a less advantageous road position in relation to his rivals.
It was Breen’s first WRC event since September and his first loose-surface rally in that period too, and he struggled to preserve the studs in his Pirelli rubber as well as some others.
“It was really tough on me this weekend,” Breen said.
“I have to say mentally after delivering so much in Estonia the goalposts moved suddenly and you just want to deliver a win.
“I need to remember that experience is on the low side and we need to bide our time.”
Evans was never really a factor for the podium in Finland – hampered by running second on the road on Friday – and admitted it “wasn’t the weekend we wanted”.
But two stage wins and a fifth-place finish was a solid weekend return for him, particularly given the context of team-mate Ogier’s struggles.
Toyota junior Takamoto Katsuta finished sixth after an impressive, under-the-radar performance, finishing 1.2s ahead of Oliver Solberg – who spun his Hyundai on the powerstage.
Solberg’s expectations were measured for his World Rally Car debut, particularly as he underwent a late co-driver change with Seb Marshall replacing Aaron Johnston, who wasn’t able to compete due to one positive COVID-19 test.
Despite his inexperience and this late shift, the 19-year-old incredibly recorded four top-four stage times throughout the rally to bring his 2C Competition Hyundai home in seventh.
Speaking about his powerstage mishap, Solberg said: “I lost my sixth place with one second but it’s not bad with that, I lost probably 15-20 seconds. OK I’m sorry, but I tried.”
The M-Sport Ford team was never really in the same race as Toyota and Hyundai on the lightning-fast roads of Lapland, and its two drivers Teemu Suninen and Gus Greensmith came home in eighth and ninth respectively.
Suninen had been embroiled in a tussle for sixth with Solberg, Katsuta and Ogier before losing touch on Saturday – bemoaning the lack of high-speed performance from the Fiesta WRC – while Greensmith was more isolated in ninth, feeling his first stage performance where he lost 41.8s wrecked his weekend.
Pierre-Louis Loubet, Lorenzo Bertelli and Janne Tuohino all retired their WRC cars at various points on Arctic Rally Finland in quite different circumstances.
Tuohino’s withdrawal was the most bizarre as he dislocated his shoulder on Saturday evening and could not restart on Sunday, while 2C Competition’s Loubet and privateer Bertelli were both victims of the event’s notorious snowbanks.
Bertelli buried his Fiesta WRC into one just a couple of miles into Saturday while Loubet – who was a sensational sixth after SS1 before falling out of contention with a puncture on SS2 – was unluckier.
The Hyundai junior ran wide on a left-hander and scooped a fair amount of snow into the front of his i20 Coupe WRC on Saturday afternoon, and while he was able to continue he had turbo damage that led to his retirement for the day.
He almost threw it all away again on the rally’s final corner as he ran wide and spun his car, clipping a snowbank with the rear. He said “he was looking at the dash” as the Hyundai had developed another engine issue halfway through the stage.
Esapekka Lappi completed the top 10 on his first rally of 2021, driving a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
A big battle had been expected in the WRC2 class but Lappi ruined those hopes of a close fight with a dominant display – an SS7 spin the only blot on his copybook as the Finn won eight of the rally’s 10 stages.
Andreas Mikkelsen was second but some 47.7s adrift of his fellow WRC exile, while Nikolay Gryazin rounded out the podium on his first points-nominated round of the year. Mikkelsen did however grab the powerstage win, edging Lappi by 2.9s on the final stage.
Eyvind Brynildsen was a last-minute substitute for Marcu Bulacia, who could not get a visa to enter Finland for the rally, and finished fourth, but M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux – who will drive a Fiesta WRC on the next round in Croatia – had a weekend to forget in the Rally2.
Fourmaux exited his thrilling battle with Brynildsen with an off into a snowbank on Saturday, and then made a similar mistake on the penultimate stage of the rally on Sunday.
1 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) 10m02.469s
2 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +0.262s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +0.365s
4 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +1.645s
5 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +1.803s
Final positions positions after SS10
1 Tänak/Järveoja (Hyundai) 2h03m49.6s
2 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) +17.5s
3 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +19.8s
4 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +52.6s
5 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +1m01.5s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +1m37.8s
7 Oliver Solberg/Seb Marshall (Hyundai) +1m39s
8 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (M-Sport Ford) +2m09s
9 Gus Greensmith/Elliott Edmondson (M-Sport Ford) +3m39.4s
10 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Volkswagen) +6m07s
WRC drivers’ championship standings
1 Rovanperä 39 2 Neuville 35 3 Ogier 31 4 Evans 31 5 Tänak 27
WRC manufacturers’ championship standings
1 Toyota 88 2 Hyundai 77 3 M-Sport Ford 24 4 2C Competition Hyundai 22