December 7, 2022 was the day everyone thought M-Sport’s fortunes had turned.
Ott Tänak was announced at the team and since then everyone’s been drooling about the 2019 World Rally champion and M-Sport fighting for a championship once again.
We were all ready and waiting for Tänak to make his mark on the Monte, despite it not being one of his most successful events, but when SS1 got underway, his pace was found lacking.
It killed the mood. The romance was dead. No more rose-tinted glasses, there’s a job to do.
By the end of Thursday evening, Tänak was 15.4 seconds off the lead, although he was third overall, but 24 hours later he’d lost a position and was 54.2s off the front.
He might not have expected to win Monte going into the event, but Tänak would have definitely hoped to have been closer to the leading pack than that.
On the twisty asphalt stages, he simply didn’t have the pace to match to match the Toyotas. Although to be fair, nor did anybody.
There’s no denying the GR Yaris’s pace was impressive, but M-Sport would have hoped its Puma could have been much closer, especially since it went so well in the hands of Sébastien Loeb last year when he won the event.
Despite being unable to match Toyota for pace, Tänak would have still hoped he could hang on for a podium battle, but he was robbed of that opportunity on Saturday when he got hit with a power-steering issue. Monte had become all about survival.
“In some way for sure it’s a bit of shame.” Tänak said to DirtFish on Saturday evening.
“We did, or we tried, to find quite some different direction for the day, especially after yesterday when we didn’t really feel good in the car.
“So we changed today, and in the morning first stage it was not really good yet, but direction was right and then we did some other things after the first stage, and then beginning of the next one it felt actually better.
“But then obviously we got the issue and we couldn’t do anything with that anymore. It was an internal problem so basically we just had to survive the rest of the day.”
Survive Tänak did.
He made it to the end of the rally, finishing fifth, over two and a half minutes behind victor Sébastien Ogier.
That’s a long way off where he would have expected to be when thinking about the season-opener at Christmas. A long way off.
But it wasn’t all bad. There were some positives.
Tänak only found the confidence to push on a single stage of Monte, and that was the final one – the powerstage. But when he did push, the performance was there.
He came ever so close to winning the powerstage, being pipped to the post by Kalle Rovanperä by a mere six tenths of a second.
Finishing runner-up on that test secured Tänak a vital extra four points, allowing him to walk away with a total of 14 from Monte.
That only grants him fifth in the championship standings, but only nine points behind second place Rovanperä, who is essentially the championship leader since Ogier is on a part-time program.
It was definitely a far from ideal Monte Carlo Rally for Tänak, but as he rightly points out, it was far better than the one he experienced a year before.
“At least over three years we grabbed some points from Monte, which is a good start for the season I guess,” he said.
“Anyway, 14 points more than last three years total.”
And that’s what counts.
Tänak fully succeeded in limiting the damage on Monte, but that will only work for so long.
Neither he nor M-Sport can afford a repeat in Sweden, not if they want to reignite the romance.
Stage wins and a podium. That’s what they need as a minimum. Anything less and it might risk us all wondering what the fuss was all about.