Three years ago, Sunday night in Salou was a very different story. Ott Tänak was on top of the world. Champion with Toyota, off to Hyundai. The start of a new adventure.
And what an adventure it’s been.
It started with a monumental Monte Carlo shunt and ended in a contractual car crash. As the post-rally analysis began in Salou’s Danny Boy bar, it was the Estonian who was – once again – the talk of the town.
Only in that it’s taken Tänak so long to make his decision public.
And make no mistake, this was very much his decision. Tänak has had the ability to walk away from a contract which was good for at least another season for some time now. And if you believe the speculation, the clause has little to do with the number of event victories or stage wins he’s achieved this year.
His decision might seem strange in a season where he’s won three times more rallies than any of his team-mates.
But this isn’t his team. He knows it. And that’s why he’s gone.
And that’s the message he’s been sending loud and clear for a very long time.
When did everything change?
Ultimately when Andrea Adamo departed his role as team principal at the end of last season.
Tänak’s a difficult bloke to handle. Let’s be honest, when he wants to be, he can be a proper hard b*****d. And it takes somebody of a similar nature to deal with him. Hello Andrea Adamo.
That’s how the pair got on so well. They understood each other and they were 100% willing to go through the blood, sweat and tears required to take a title.
On the management side, nobody has matched Adamo’s commitment to the cause this season. And that’s not my view, that’s a fairly universal view from the inside.
The car was hopelessly late to the start of the season and then hopeless once the season got started.
Credit where it’s due, Christian Loriaux did an exceptional job in turning the thing around and creating a car which could first see the finish and ultimately finish first.
But by then the rot had set in.
The power vacuum at the very top of the team has to be filled by somebody, despite strong speculation that Neuville is now running the show.
Let’s be blunt about this, he wasn’t exactly rolling out the red carpet when Tänak arrived at the top of 2020. Hyundai was and arguably always has been Thierry’s team.
Still it beggars belief that Neuville was allowed to win Greece, when Tänak’s position in the title race was so much stronger. I know, you’re right, it wouldn’t have made an ounce of difference now Kalle Rovanperä wears the crown, but that decision spoke volumes about life in Hyundai.
But Neuville’s powerbase within the team isn’t the question here, it’s absolutely not his fault the team hasn’t been able to find the right person for the job of team principal.
This story’s about Tänak and the words he was writing on the wall long ago.
The words about deputy team director Julien Moncet being a nice guy, but not a team principal. The amusement as stage end reporters’ collected determination to take positives from a stage win or a rally lead.
“Why?” he questioned, “do you always have to look for a positive when it is only negative?”
Spain was absolutely the final straw. The decision was well and truly made before last weekend, but the lack of pace, feel and confidence on the asphalt stages winding their way through the Tarragona hills made it all the easier.
That apparent slam-dunk of a return to M-Sport folk will write so freely about… don’t be too sureDavid Evans
The lack of a smile on a rally he’d described as ‘fun’ underlined it.
What now for Ott Tänak?
There are plenty who will be writing that he’s off to M-Sport, maybe he’s even signed for Toyota. Both are possible. Neither is true.
Right now, Tänak’s a free agent post-Japan.
And that apparent slam-dunk of a return to M-Sport folk will write so freely about… don’t be too sure.
I’ve known Malcolm Wilson a very long time. I’ve watched in admiration as he’s taken his team to the top of the world, and I’ve watched in even more admiration as he’s done what’s needed to be done to keep his team and his people alive.
Be under no illusion, MW’s in survival mode right now. He’s struggling to find a way to stay in the World Rally Championship and the prospect of finding more millions to return a former driver now turned world champion to Dovenby Hall would be laughable if you could find anybody left with a laugh in them.
It’s easy to reach for the example of Wilson finding a way to bring Sébastien Ogier to M-Sport in 2017. And then keep him there for a successful title defense a year later. That was then. This is now. History can’t afford to repeat itself.
At the time, he was quite clear: that was a once-in-a-career move.
Tänak to M-Sport could be a bridge too far, even for Wilson.
Toyota then? Stranger things have happened.
Or maybe there’s one more team we haven’t considered: Red Grey. His own team, the team he shares with Markko Märtin.
Tänak’s always been clear that he wants to be more hands on with his own team in the future. Maybe the future’s here and now.
Certainly, team Tänak is going to be front and center for a while. His amazing wife and lovely family offer the perfect antidote to life in blue and orange across the last few months.
What’s the overriding feeling late on Sunday night as the Guinness gets going?
For me, it has to be one of a missed opportunity. When Tänak jumped ship, he did so wearing DirtFish colors and full of optimism and endeavor to bring a second championship home.
More than anything in life, you’ve got to know when to call it quits. Tänak’s timing is right.