I’ve always been a fan of Ott Tänak. Even more so when it comes to Sardinia. It has something to do with him pulling me out of the way of a car just minutes after scoring his first ever World Rally Championship win five years ago.
The Estonian’s been busy since that maiden victory in 2017. He’s switched teams twice, been on the podium 27 times (admittedly, he’d been there eight times before Sardinia), won 13 more rounds of the championship. And succeeded in being the only man capable of interrupting Sébastien Ogier’s run of the world championship success. He wore the crown in 2019.
And those were all big wins.
Sunday’s success was as big as any of them.
Yes, he came within four and a bit seconds of winning in Croatia a couple of rounds ago, but that was as much to do with a canny tire choice and a storm that simply didn’t exist on Toyota’s weather radar.
Last week was different. Last week Tänak was at the races from the start. Last week he carved the win he captured. He and Martin Järveoja deserved it. Tänak disagreed. It wasn’t just him and his co-driver – it was the whole team who deserved it. He’s right.
The Estonian has been hard on Hyundai Motorsport this year. That’s because – in his eyes – he felt that was fair. It’s hard to the point of impossible to argue with that. That’s Ott. He demands the best of those around him like he demands the best of himself. It’s the way of an elite athlete. It’s the mark of a champion.
Last week the Alzenau crew delivered and Tänak was the first to applaud those who helped him climb to the podium’s top step.
In turn, the vast majority of them wasted no time in joining him for the traditional dip in the Alghero harbor.
After some of the hottest and most uncomfortable conditions in the recent history of the championship, a headlong leap into the Mediterranean was the perfect way to celebrate. For the second time in five years, Ott was the first in.
Friday night fortune
When Esapekka Lappi overturned Tänak’s advantage to take a 0.7-second lead, eyebrows were raised in the wake of SS7. Prior to that, the #8 Hyundai had scored its first fastest time and Ott looked very much in control.
“It feels like we have three-wheel drive,” he said. “The transmission broke near the end.”
This came just two stages after Thierry Neuville’s hopes had been dashed by a driveshaft failure. It never really rains for Hyundai this season, but it pours with remarkable regularity.
Arriving in Castelsardo for a regroup ahead of the day’s final two stages and 17 miles, the clouds gathered metaphorically and physically.
It’s not often that team DirtFish shy away from diving in for a chat. But there was serious potential for rock, paper, scissors on this one – or there would have been had it not been for Colin Clark’s failing voice.
I leaned in to interrupt Tänak’s banana consumption. He confirmed his end of stage fears and completed the rest of the day with considerably less enthusiasm than earlier in the afternoon. There were, however, no histrionics, no door-banging venting of frustration, just an acceptance that his job had changed. He would do what he could.
Then everything changed. The first of the two stages was canceled on safety grounds and when the organizers couldn’t re-route the cars to the day’s finale in time, that one was binned too.
Bingo. Out of a cloudy sky had come a ray of sunshine. Hyundai grabbed it with both hands.
And when Lappi dropped his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 on the first stage of the weekend, the smiles at Hyundai got even wider. Tänak was now 21.5s to the good.
There was, however, a good bit of anxiety writ large across the faces of the team’s senior management sitting in the Korean make’s command center, harbourside in Alghero. Ahead of the event, Saturday had been rated as the season’s toughest day. Temperatures were rising well north of 100 degrees fahrenheit and the cars and crews were out there on their own. Lunchtime service consisted of a damp towel, a bottle of water and half a dozen fresh Pirellis.
If anything failed, the game would be up.
Talking to Hyundai’s deputy team principal Julien Moncet on Friday lunchtime, shortly after Neuville’s problem, his assessment was typically forthright.
“We failed again.”
Little wonder, the team watched Saturday unfold from behind their hands. Which was a shame, because it was vintage Tänak.
Tänak the enforcer’s back
In his championship season, Ott Tänak commanded the sort of respect reserved in recent years for Frenchmen called Sébastien. He won rallies for fun and demonstrated the sort of pace and performance which, at times, beggared belief. His speed with Toyota’s Yaris WRC was as spellbinding as it was beyond the reach of his rivals.
Very much at the top of his game, he jumped ship to Hyundai and his success rate went south. Deep south.
Since his maiden win in Sardinia, 2017, this has been his longest run without topping the podium – his last success was Finland (the cold one) at the top of 2021.
Had he lost his edge? Or was this just a car-related performance slump? Certainly, he deserved more from his first two seasons with Hyundai.
Last weekend offered emphatic answers. The old Ott was very definitely back on Saturday. With every conceivable part replaced ahead of the year’s hottest day, Tänak got on with the job. He just drove the car and forgot about what had happened and what might happen.
The result? He won all but one stage to carry a 46s lead into Sunday.
And then he won. Plain and simple. Crossing the finish line on the beach at the end of the Argentiera powerstage sparked something of an explosion in Hyundai. The noise coming out of the team’s command center was quite extraordinary. The relief was everywhere.
In the blink of an eye, Moncet’s biggest concern was his decision to wear his new trainers on Sunday morning.
They would be despatched before his enforced arrival in the harbor.
It was great to see. Tänak has, undoubtedly, split service park opinion in the last couple of years. He’s been tricky, truculent and difficult to get on with.
But Sunday was about a win that’s long overdue and inordinately worthy of a group of people who have worked – and are working – tirelessly to put themselves back on the right track. A track they were seriously late joining in the first place.
Tänak and Moncet are both realists. Yes there might be the odd Swallow swooping around Hyundai’s corner of the service park, but summer’s not with the Koreans just yet. There is still plenty of work to do both within the team and on the car itself.
That’s for tomorrow.
Today it’s time for Tänak to rejoice in his return to the winner’s circle.
And this time, DirtFish was able to return the favor. He saved me on the Italian island in 2017 and I helped him avoid sitting in dog s*** in Tempio on Saturday morning.
It was our pleasure. Just like it was to be reporting on an Estonian WRC win again.