Defending World Rally Champion Ott Tänak should be in Argentina this week. He’s not. Like the rest of us, he’s at home.
While he can’t drive his Hyundai Motorsport i20 Coupe WRC on SpeedAgro Rally Argentina, he can tell us what his event would have looked like if the world had not locked itself down because of coronavirus.
DirtFish: When would you normally travel to the rally?
Ott Tänak: I would arrive on Sunday or maybe Monday morning.
DF: Struggle with jet-lag?
OT: Actually, not so much. When I’m going back in time it’s not so bad – from Estonia it’s only five hours or something. But coming back to Europe is more complicated. I don’t have the problem for sleep – apart from sometimes when we stayed in the hotel close to the service park [Portal del Lago]. This was a good location. The only problem was that in rally evenings, the local championship guys were tuning their cars until quite late into the night, so it could get quite noisy.
But, from the other side, the restaurant there is really nice – even if you weren’t staying in this hotel you would always go to the restaurant. There are two waiters who have been there for maybe more years than I have been alive. They are legends, so professional and they know what rally people want to eat?
DF: What would you eat?
OT: Steak, definitely in Argentina.
DF: Red wine?
OT: No, no red wine.
DF: Not even on a Sunday night?
OT: Not really wine, maybe beer. At home I drink some wine, but it’s usually white wine when my wife and I are eating some fish. If it’s red wine, then it needs to be really good red wine.
DF: Like Malcolm’s [Wilson, M-Sport managing director is known for his appreciation of grand crus] red wine?
OT: Yes. Something like this.
DF: Is SpeedAgro Rally Argentina one of your favourites?
OT: It was always challenging, but generally I like most of the rally. I would say Sunday’s stages in Mina Clavero and El Cóndor was always the most complicated day. The first two were quite enjoyable.
DF: Is Argentina a difficult rally to learn? Is it as tough as, say, Finland?
OT: In the beginning I was more used to the fast and smooth roads. The first time I got to Argentina, you can see only some rocks at the side of the road and it can be difficult to focus on the road ahead of you when you have that many dangerous things at the side. It’s also quite rough with quite many rhythm and surface changes. But because it can be rough and tough we have to think a lot about durability as well.
DF: You talked about the difference in stages from Friday-Saturday to Sunday. The first two days are generally quicker, wider roads compared those to the west of Villa Carlos Paz. Would you have changed the set-up of your i20 over the three days?
OT: It’s difficult to make any big changes during the event. I guess, in the big picture, the car is quite similar [on all three days], but the average speed and characteristics of the roads are very different. We would do some balance changes, but because everything is linked you can’t do too much.
DF: The second pass can get quite rough, with, sometimes, even bigger rocks being pulled out…
OT: It’s a rough event. I remember after last year’s rally, the chassis were quite destroyed after Argentina and we then had to go directly to Chile – it was a lot of work for the mechanics. Definitely it was a big job. Also, Argentina is fast and rough, so you are hitting things at quite high speed.
DF: The roads can get quite rutted. How do you cope with those ruts?
OT: If the car is able to run high [ride height] and you can have a good feeling… in some cars it can be quite nice to drive in the ruts if they give you a lot of support. But some other cars, cars which are designed to run on smoother roads, then they start to touch [the road] a lot and this starts to kick you out of the ruts. That’s not so enjoyable.
DF: El Cóndor would have been Sunday’s powerstage, what do you think of it?
OT: To be honest, El Cóndor hasn’t been that bad and in recent years it’s been fairly smooth. OK, there are still many loose rocks and stones around so it’s easy to get a puncture. I would say Mina Clavero is a lot more tricky. Maybe this is something to do with the fact that we have done El Cóndor twice for the last few years, but Mina Clavero only once. Cóndor we know it a bit more.
It’s difficult not to see the people! Sometimes on the recce we come through these high-altitude stages in fog and you don’t see them, but if the weather clears on the rally all you can see is peopleOtt Tänak on Rally Argentina's El Cóndor spectators
DF: Do you prefer running up the hill from Copina to the rocks up at the top of El Cóndor or coming downhill?
OT: Hmm, that’s a good question. Each direction we have done a few times, we know the road quite well in both directions. It’s always tough.
DF: That rocky section is always full of fans. Obviously, you’re really focused on the road, but do you get the chance to see the people as well?
OT: It’s difficult not to see the people! If you are struggling to get through the stage [with a problem] then you see many of them. There are also so many people on the highway [around these stages]. Sometimes on the recce we come through these high-altitude stages in the fog and you don’t see the people, but then if the weather clears on the rally then all you can see is the people.
DF: Famously people camp out for four or five nights before the event to make sure they get the best place. Fancy that?
OT: Probably, I would. That’s something that is an interesting part of rallying – you can go in the forest and, if you have some good company, then you can have a good time and see some rally cars. I’ve done this in Finland quite many times, in Argentina it would be a bit different with all the barbecues – but Finland was not so bad as well.
DF: You won SpeedAgro Rally Argentina in 2018 at your sixth attempt. You dropped 23.8s with a spin in the Las Bajadas stage, first thing Friday. After that you were fastest on 10 of the next 12 stages. Tell us about that event…
OT: The first stage was dusty, the dust was hanging and it was difficult. Then I hit a rock which I didn’t have in the notes, but, obviously, we found it during the event. The first feedback [from the car] was that we had a hard enough hit to take a wheel off.
Luckily the car was strong enough and we could finish – we had some steering issues, but we managed to fix it mostly during the road section.
But in that stage, to get to the finish, we were struggling to turn the car in one direction; something was touching. On the road section we managed to fix it, in the next stage it wasn’t disturbing so much and when you are focused, you don’t notice these things.
DF: For me, that was one of your finest drives ever. What do you think?
OT: At that moment it was the best rally I have ever done. I was surprised myself after this that we had this much speed, so it wasn’t so difficult to take the time back.
DF: What made the difference that year? Was it frustration or anger?
OT: Er, no. Suspension. I think we could have the speed without the problem. In the beginning of the year we were working a lot on the suspension and this was the first event where we had the upgraded suspension. We got quite a bit of direction and immediately I felt I had what I needed. If you have that confidence then it’s a lot easier to make some good times.
DF: Not being in Argentina, what will you miss most this week?
OT: That’s easy: the competition of course. I like to work and I like to feel the pressure of competition – that’s what I miss most.
DF: The flip side of this is that we have time more time at home. That’s quite nice?
OT: I’m quite relaxed right now. We don’t know when anything is going to happen, it’s nice to be home.
DF: When this all ends, how difficult will it be to go leave the family and go back to work?
OT: It could be tough. But in the beginning, going back, they will have missed their friends and I have missed racing, so I guess both of us have something to miss. In a way maybe it won’t be so hard in the beginning… but in the end, we are getting used to each other!
DF: Before you go, one very important job. As part of DirtFish’s Argentina Week, we need your prediction for who would have been in the top six.
OT: Like a prediction, you mean?
OT: I’m not very good at those.
DF: Obviously in Ott’s top six, Ott will win, but you can’t have the top-three all Hyundai?
OT: But it would have been! Hyundai is a very strong car, it would have been strong this week. OK, here we go: me, then my two Hyundai team-mates! [Sébastien] Ogier is always there and Elfyn [Evans] is always quick in Argentina and I think EP (Esapekka Lappi) would have made the top six.
DF: Ogier’s never won Argentina…
OT: Yeah, but he’s always in the fight. Always. I only ever remember one place where he struggled a little bit – remember that one stage in the fog in 2018? He lost a minute there, but for every other stage he fights and never gives up.