Juha Kankkunen isn’t competing on this weekend’s Monte Carlo Rally, but his famous phrase from the end of Rally Finland 22 years ago perfectly surmised this Saturday’s affairs when he uttered the words “black, round, Pirelli”.
Of course, four-time champion Kankkunen’s words were actually used to disguise the tire tactics he adopted on the rally’s final stage, not in description of the third day of this year’s Monte. But tires and tire strategy have been a major talking point and a decisive factor on this year’s World Rally Championship season opener, particularly across the morning loop of two stages on Saturday.
Unlike on the first two days where conversation centered on which compound of Pirelli’s new-for-2021 rubber to select, the main decision for Saturday’s first two stages was how many to carry, and which specific studded options to take.
Hyundai and Toyota saw it from different sides. While the blue and orange cars each headed out of Gap with used studded tires and just one spare in the trunk, the black, red and white machines were equipped with new studded tires and two spares.
Ironically, both teams would end up regretting their choices.
SS9 La Bréole – Selonnet belonged to Sébastien Ogier, who wasted no time in deposing Elfyn Evans of his rally lead. Stopping the clocks 17.8 seconds faster than his Toyota team-mate, Ogier turned his 7.4s deficit into a 10.4s advantage in just 11.4 miles of rallying.
And on Saint-Clément – Freissinières Ogier stole another 3.9s from Evans to return to Gap with a 14.3s advantage at the head of the pack. Smiles all round.
Except Ogier wasn’t smiling. While he did pull more time from Evans, he had dropped an alarming 42.2s to stage winner Thierry Neuville on SS10. The stage conditions were predictable, albeit offering next-to-zero grip, which played into the hands of Hyundai’s used tire selection.
Whenever this year’s Monte Carlo Rally is looked back upon in years to come, Neuville’s gain is unlikely to be noted as he was still 51.7s off the lead and didn’t even move up a position. In reality, it didn’t really affect Ogier’s rally.
There was no big drama, but of course we shouldn't produce this kind of mistake and lose another big chunk of time, otherwise it's all open againSébastien Ogier on Toyota's Saturday morning tire choice
But you don’t win seven World Rally Championship titles without having a fierce competitive streak, and Ogier was frustrated that he had allowed this to happen. The Toyota star admitted he had “this feeling this morning” that taking used studs would be the more competitive option but lamented the fact “I didn’t follow it enough”.
“I think we made a bit of a mistake with the tires and we could have done a bit better,” he said at service.
“It looks like what Hyundai has done and made a bit of a difference with that in that stage.
“We discussed it, I wanted to go with five [used] tires and the team decided to go the safe way. I said, ‘OK, if we do the same with Elfyn let’s go the safe way’.
“So far no big drama [but] of course we shouldn’t produce this kind of mistake and lose another big chunk of time like this, otherwise it’s all open again.”
But why was the used-tire package more effective? Common logic suggests fresher, unused rubber would provide the driver with that extra bit of bite on the asphalt and therefore help them to go faster.
That’s certainly true for dry stages, but this is Monte Carlo. Snowy conditions are common, and snowy conditions are what the crews faced on SS10.
Evans explained: “There was obviously the discussion whether to take two new tires on the basis that you would think sometimes that a new tire should be better because the stud is more solid, and in some instances that can give you more grip.
“But [I’m] not sure it was the right call.
“I think what tends to happen is when the tires become used obviously the stud protrudes out of the tire a bit more and that can give you grip so it’s a difficult call and obviously with so little experience with the tire it’s hard to know what’s best.”
Running behind all the Hyundai’s on a stage that seemed to deteriorate also hurt Ogier and Evans, but the lesson was learned; they didn’t make the same mistake for the final stage. Evans duly won that one to signify his intentions to Ogier ahead of Sunday’s final four stages.
So what of Hyundai? Where is its regret?
While it might have sent its drivers out with the correct compound of tires, it didn’t send them out with the correct quantity.
Ott Tänak had led the Monte Carlo Rally after Thursday’s brace of stages, but soon slipped back when competition resumed on Friday. However, he ended the day third following a costly slide off the road and a 10s time penalty for checking into a time control late for Kalle Rovanperä gifted him the place.
Saturday was simply a disaster though. A mistake on recce meant Tänak had failed to note a rock on SS9 in his pacenotes and he clipped it, puncturing the front-left tire of his Hyundai. He waved goodbye to 1m20.2s and fell to fifth.
With no viable spare tire in the boot because he had only taken five tires out to the stages with him, the last thing Tänak needed was another puncture. Sadly for him, that’s exactly what he got.
This time there was nothing he could have done about it, he just didn’t luck out in the lottery. A slow puncture greatly reduced his pace, and Tänak even stopped on stage to put the previously punctured tire back on his Hyundai.
It was a catastrophe as he lost almost nine minutes and fell another nine spots to 14th, which soon became 15th by the time he reached service as he arrived in Gap 11 minutes late, incurring 1m50s worth of time penalties as a result.
Worse than that though, Tänak arrived with just three tires on his wagon and that’s against the FIA’s sporting regulations. Retirement was mandatory. And with no SuperRally rules for the final day of the Monte Carlo Rally, that was all she wrote for the 2019 world champion.
In the grand scheme of things, Hyundai has lost little as Dani Sordo has now assumed the fifth spot Tänak vacated, but it will now have a very disgruntled Estonia on its books.
Those black, round Pirelli’s have certainly made their mark on the WRC’s 2021 season opener.