For a man with zero points coming into round two of the World Rally Championship, Ott Tänak was pretty relaxed ahead of the series’ first visit ever to the Arctic Circle.
Moving between the six huskies about to power him through the Finnish woods for the next couple of kilometers, he looked across and grinned.
“David, you will be my co-driver…”
While such a role would place me directly in the firing line of any potential canine anti-lag issues, I wasn’t about to argue. The 2019 world champion demonstrated superb poise and balance to get us between the trees in no time at all. He was dog-driven a man on a mission.
And nothing changed when he swapped huskies for horsepower and set about the frozen Finnish forests.
As was the case with last year’s Rally Estonia – an event run on similarly fast roads, just minus the massive snow accumulation – there was plenty of pre-event chatter about Kalle Rovanperä. The thinking was straightforward: Toyota’s young charger was a serious contender for a maiden WRC win.
As was the case with last year’s Rally Estonia, Tänak dominated. And delivered.
The 2019 world champion was captain cool and able to extend his advantage, apparently at will – undoubtedly helped on Friday’s two stages by a preferable place on the road, the sole silver lining to a particularly cloudy Monte Carlo.
And, boy, had Monte been a cloudy one for the Hyundai squad. A double puncture ruled Tänak out, but none of the i20 Coupe WRC crews fired as team principal Andrea Adamo demanded.
The Italian raged about the team’s lack of preparation for the opener and vowed to gets his ducks in a row in Rovaniemi. Didn’t he just. A double podium halved Toyota’s manufacturers’ championship lead and returned the smile to the face of Adamo.
Round two took the World Rally Championship further north than it had ever been before. It took it to the Lapland home of Joulupukki.
And no self-respecting Rovaniemi-based WRC round could work without a visit to the man in red before the start. That’s how all of the drivers found themselves sitting down next to Santa Claus to discuss their hopes and aspirations for the coming days.
Coronavirus regulations dictated a clear Perspex screen between Father Christmas and his visitors, so there would be no sitting on any knees. There was, however, a fairly straightforward approach to the very early – or late – Christmas list.
Here’s what Joulupukki had to say: “As you know, Rudolph, Prancer, Dancer and their pals make sure I’m the fastest thing this side of the Arctic Circle, so I was interested to see the world’s fastest rally drivers all coming to see me just before the start of Arctic Rally Finland.
“What a nice bunch of people, but rarely have I seen so many Christmas lists with a single request. Everybody was hoping for the same thing: a win.”
It was Tänak who unwrapped the biggest present on Sunday (a present delivered to the podium’s top step in fine style by Joulupukki himself) following what had apparently been a fairly straightforward drive.
Straightforward that was, apart from pinballing the i20 Coupe WRC along the snowbanks in stage five.
“That was close,” Tänak told DirtFish. “I was happy not to take the shovel out!
“The info was coming a little bit on the limit and I was not able to slow down enough – it wasn’t planned to use those snowbanks like that! And then I couldn’t get the wipers on, you could say that everything was a little bit out of my hands in this moment.”
After juggling the win briefly, he took a very firm grasp of it until the finish.
Until the second stage on Saturday, Tänak’s team-mate Craig Breen was making Arctic Rally Finland look like a carbon copy of Rally Estonia, running second in the sister i20. As the event unfolded Breen slipped back to fourth – in part, no doubt, because he hadn’t been in the car on a WRC round for five months.
Kalle Rovanperä stepped up to take Breen’s second place and he stayed there until the finish – despite a spirited and superb drive from Thierry Neuville who pushed him all the way. Neuville’s run was impressive given he started third on the road on Friday and was still adjusting to new co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe.
Rovanperä however was deeply frustrated at his lack of speed on a rally he knew he was in the box seat to win.
DirtFish had outlined what it was that placed a 20-year-old in that box seat in the days prior to the event and, while he tried to downplay his chances on the eve of the start, the disappointment writ right across his face as a fraught Friday played out made it quite obvious that Harri’s boy saw an opportunity slipping through his fingers.
He couldn’t find any balance in a car plagued with understeer for the early stages. For the first time as a factory WRC driver, things weren’t completely perfect for Rovanperä and, while he was very careful not to moan too much, he was clear that he wanted this one investigating.
We have to be careful here. After Hyundai’s Monte Carlo result of two cars in the top five was greeted by a fairly public birching for team principal Andrea Adamo, should we expect a similar response from Jari-Matti Latvala after a top-five containing only a couple of Yaris WRCs? Not a chance.
There’s no doubt this was a huge disappointment for Toyota – it’s the first time the Puuppola-based team has lost a WRC round at home since the arrival of the Yaris in 2017 – and they headed north as the firm favorite with a car made here and drivers ready, willing and able to make the most of it.
Sébastien Ogier’s hopes were dashed by running first on the road on Friday, then sliding off the road on Saturday. Second on the road, Elfyn Evans suffered similar woes on Friday and was then surprisingly unable to get the best out of the Yaris WRC on the icy-rutted roads second time through the day two stages.
Twelve months ago, Evans mastered the most marginal of winter rally conditions to monster Rally Sweden. This time, by his own admission, he wasn’t really at the races.
“It’s been a terrible weekend overall really,” Evans told DirtFish. “I had flashes of very, very good speed, mostly on the first pass condition.”
A stage win first time through Kaihuavaara on Saturday morning bore testament to that first pass speed. Sitting down to lunch, he was just a couple of seconds off Neuville. The afternoon loop was painful for Evans as he watched the Belgian Hyundai pull half a minute on him.
A typically honest Evans said: “I really struggled to do anything once the ruts came with the frozen gravel and I seemed to be the Toyota driver that suffered the most in that condition to be honest.”
Quickest again on the first of two Sunday stages, Evans cut the gap to Breen’s fourth place to 3.6s. But that was as close as he got. An inspired powerstage run from the Irishman secured fourth and gave a much more accurate demonstration of what he’s capable of when he’s given time in the car.
Aside from a vastly different character, another reason we were unlikely to see any kind of Adamo-style outburst from Latvala was the performance of sixth-placed Takamoto Katsuta. It was nothing short of superb.
Testing in Jyväskylä last month, Katsuta seemed to be off the road as much as he was on it. Co-driver Juho Hänninen yo-yoed in and out of the Yaris, while the team kept the tow rope to hand. That day was concerning.
Justifiable concern? Not at all. He was getting his eye in. Pushing everything to see what he could get away with, what was possible. Going over the limit to understand the precise location of the limit.
Into the event, he was consistent, solid and quick. Last week was another big step forward for the likeable Japanese. Last week, he looked truly comfortable among world rallying’s elite.
But we just have to talk about the second Solberg coming. I think, actually, he might have arrived…
Talking about looking truly comfortable among world rallying’s elite, Oliver Solberg ticked that box on what was arguably the most impressive debut in a World Rally Car ever. Yes, Kalle Rovanperä might have edged him in terms of classification at last year’s Monte Carlo, but the time gap from teenage sensation to rally winner was twice as close from Solberg. Worth caveating that with the point that Arctic Rally Finland was a faster rally than Monte, so you would expect smaller gaps.
But still, Solberg was quite magnificent. We’ll save the more detailed analysis for Oliver himself – he’ll write exclusively for DirtFish later this week – but suffice to say, he caught the attention of the watching world.
Most importantly, he really got the attention of Hyundai team principal Andrea Adamo, who was fulsome in his praise. Asked about Solberg’s final-stage spin which cost him sixth place, Adamo offered a lengthy explanation involving Hercules. To precis that chat: “Focus on the great stuff, the bigger picture, don’t get side-tracked by the meaningless minutiae.”
M-Sport had a mixed bag of a rally however.
Teemu Suninen was right. And wrong. The Ford Fiesta WRC is down on power compared to its rivals. But the gap’s not all that. Yes, there were definitely sections of the route where the absence of a handful of horses would have had an impact on the top speed, but could and should we have expected more from the Finn? Yes.
I wanted to come here and remind people it’s not just Andreas who is looking for a way backEsapekka Lappi
Equally, his position was a difficult one. He’d stacked it spectacularly at the opener and, much as he could talk about putting that Monte crash out of his mind, it would still be there. He knew that going off the road might have meant the end of his M-Sport adventure, but at the same time he wasn’t going to be able to push for a possible home podium without putting everything on the line and generating some real risk for that reward.
One stage in and it looked like the Brits might be in for a long weekend. Gus Greensmith was a way away from where he should have been as he struggled to find his feet in the conditions. As he had the previous month, the Manchester driver fronted up and said it as it was: not good enough.
After that he got his head down and drove what, for me, was one of the best rallies in his career. He pushed and made real progress in what were some of the worst conditions, helping to clean the road for much of the weekend. Having been quick to criticize in the past, it’s absolutely right to register Greensmith’s entirely merit-worthy drive last week.
A former M-Sport man had a rather more prosperous time in Lapland though, despite finishing behind both Suninen and Greensmith last week.
Coming into this year, Andreas Mikkelsen talked of his desire to dominate Rally2. Yes, he fancied the WRC2 title with Toksport Škoda, but it was the desire to end every rally faster than anybody else in his class that was really driving the Norwegian.
Esapekka Lappi spiked his guns last week.
The Finn drove a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 on what might or might not be a one-off and did to Mikkelsen what Mikkelsen had done to everybody else on the season-opener in the French Alps. Nobody could hold a candle to the Finn in the Arctic. He reeled off fastest times for fun and dominated WRC2.
“I wanted to come here and remind people it’s not just Andreas [Mikkelsen] who is looking for a way back,” he said. “I put my name on this list as well.
Monte Carlo was easy driving. Here, I am really on the limit.Andreas Mikkelsen
“But honestly, I had so much fun driving this week. How can you not enjoy this time? We had fantastic roads and perfect, minus conditions. This is the perfect time to be driving a rally car. I had a big smile driving this week.”
Even when the Polo’s right-rear slapped the snowbank and almost speared him into a 100mph moment on SS5?
“I forgot I wasn’t in a World Rally Car!” he laughed. “I forgot about the aero… It was quite a big moment.”
And Mikkelsen? Completely upfront. Hid nothing.
“I’m pushing much more now than in Monte Carlo,” said the WRC2 series leader. “Monte Carlo was easy driving. Here, I am really on the limit.
“I’m really struggling when we’re on the fast, flowing stages – then you know EP [Lappi] is always very, very fast. When it’s more technical, we’re more on the pace. I’m just doing my best I can. I’m doing more than my best.”
A final word must go to the terrrific setting for our second round this year.
Arctic Rally Finland delivered the perfect winter conditions. Or as close as we’ve been in the WRC for a very long time. It would have been nice to have seen something of the -30C chill the teams tested in just a week before the start, but it didn’t matter. It was cold enough and more than white enough.
The organization? Perfect. What do you expect? Massive congratulations to Kai Tarkiainen and his team for building and running an exemplary round of the World Rally Championship. If ever there was a country made for two rallies in one year it’s Finland. Roll on Jyväskylä.
The only downside to last week was the loss of a legend. Waking up to the news that Hannu Mikkola had passed away on Friday was truly miserable.
Acknowledging one of its own with a minute’s silence was a mark of absolute respect from Finland. But for a man who’d ruled our world with breathtaking speed, the F18 fly-by was probably more to Hannu’s liking.
Looking down, Mikkola would, no doubt, have permitted himself a wry smile at proceedings. But seeing Rovanperä’s name at the top of the table – the youngest driver ever to do so – would have been a real reason for a fellow flying Finn to really smile.