The second round of the 2021 World Rally Championship is in the books, and it’s Ott Tänak who heads into the two-month break before Croatia with the biggest smile on his face as he came out on top of Arctic Rally Finland.
Contrary to pre-event expectation, Hyundai was the dominant force in Lapland and took a 1-2-4 (just like Toyota had on the Monte) to close to just 11 points off the early leader in the manufacturers’ race.
It’s similarly close between the drivers after two rounds, with just 14 points splitting new championship leader Kalle Rovanperä and Arctic winner Tänak in fifth.
It was a much needed result for both Tänak and co-driver Martin Järveoja and the wider Hyundai Motorsport team, after suffering a tricky Monte Carlo Rally back in January.
As ever after a WRC round, DirtFish has picked out what we learned from proceedings, and we’ll start with the man at the top of the table.
Latvala was right – Rovanperä’s time will come
Regardless of if it was fair pressure or not, it can’t be denied that Kalle Rovanperä found himself as the pre-event favorite for Arctic Rally Finland. Even rally winner Ott Tänak admitted that Rovanperä “was expected to be strong”.
However it wasn’t to be for the 20-year-old Toyota star, who dropped time with a brief visit to a snowbank on the first stage and then ultimately couldn’t replicate the same feeling of confidence with his Yaris that he had on the pre-event test.
Two stage wins from 10 wasn’t what was expected – outwardly or inwardly – but this was by no means a bad weekend. To suggest so would be, quite frankly, ridiculous.
It only seems mildly disappointing because he didn’t illuminate his name up in lights with a crushing victory which, in itself, is a true measure of just how incredible Rovanperä is.
Second place is still Rovanperä’s career-best finish in the WRC and it was only his second podium finish too, and of course coupled to his fourth place in Monte he now finds himself leading the standings for the very first time.
Rovanperä’s team principal Jari-Matti Latvala put it best to DirtFish on Thursday before the rally: ““I would say to Kalle that the victory will come when the time is right.
“And if the time is not right here, there are two events like Rally Finland, Rally Estonia; they are as strong for him to win as Arctic Rally.”
Rovanperä’s time will come, it just hasn’t quite come yet like perhaps we – and he – had thought it might.
Solberg is more than ready for the WRC
From one young sensation to another, it’s impossible to be nothing but gobsmacked at the composure, assurity and outright pace Oliver Solberg showed on his debut in a World Rally Car.
Solberg’s mountain was made an Everest when he was thrown a coronavirus-shaped curveball on the lead-up to the event. His co-driver Aaron Johnston had had one positive test and despite subsequent results coming back negative, he wasn’t able to compete. For Solberg’s debut he had to adjust to a new voice – Seb Marshall’s – which is no easy feat; just ask Thierry Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe.
However the 19-year-old drove in Finland like he’d been in the top tier for years, punching in four top-four stages times from 10 (including a third-fastest on SS3) to finish seventh overall, 1m39s down on the lead.
Of course you could argue that seventh should’ve been sixth as Solberg dropped the ball on the powerstage, spun and slipped behind Takamoto Katsuta – who was also quietly brilliant in Lapland – by an agonizing 1.2s.
But Solberg’s intentions were admirable, seeking to do a job for Mr Adamo and steal some powerstage points from Ogier – which he was set to do before the spin. Solberg and Ogier actually enjoyed a close fight in equal conditions on Saturday before Ogier got himself stuck, and Solberg held his own against the seven-time World Rally Champion.
If there were any doubts that Solberg is destined for a big career at the top of the rallying, they have now been well and truly eliminated. In fact, he looks like he’s ready for it now…
Hyundai’s Monte response was emphatic
Andrea Adamo wasn’t a happy man after Monte Carlo. Thierry Neuville claimed third but couldn’t fight the Toyotas as he was adapting to a new co-driver, Tänak retired with a double puncture while carrying just one spare and Dani Sordo was bereft of any pace.
Adamo promised something of a revolution before the second round. He was adamant: something needed to change.
Whatever he said to the team, it clearly worked. Toyota was the hot tip for success in the Arctic Circle. After all its Yaris WRC was prepared for competition on very similar roads, and the team has never been beaten in Finland before – and only once on the snow of Sweden – in four years.
For Tänak to therefore lead Arctic Rally Finland from start to finish was a big statement sent in the direction of his former employer. But it wasn’t just Tänak that was on song; Craig Breen was tucked in behind him early on before finishing fourth, one spot behind Neuville who harried Rovanperä all the way for second.
You don’t need to be an engineering genius to decipher that, clearly, the i20 Coupe WRC had been developed well for the rally. Tänak credited his engineers who he admitted he had asked a lot of, but he still drove the thing superbly.
Adamo added: “I said after Monte Carlo that only a win would have brought us back at the level that we have to be.
“Monte Carlo we did most of the things wrong, and we had to definitely be more focused, more well prepared, and I think my team has done an amazing job.”
We certainly aren’t going to argue with that. While M-Sport might be off the pace with its eggs in the 2022 basket, the Hyundai and Toyota battle this year is shaping up to be sensational.
More experience would make Breen a winner
Craig Breen isn’t short of seat-time in a rally car given his recent European Rally Championship exploits in a Hyundai i20 R5, but before Arctic Rally Finland he had not done a WRC rally since last September or an event in the i20 Coupe WRC since October.
He currently shares the third works Hyundai seat with Dani Sordo but the Spaniard had done three of the last four rallies before Arctic. And that event in September – Estonia – was the last Breen had done on gravel in any competition.
To cut a long story short, Breen was short of experience last weekend. At times it showed as he slipped backwards on Saturday’s longest leg, but realistically Breen can not be expected to be on rally-winning pace when he’s coming in cold – even if he confessed he had put himself under that pressure given his second place in Estonia.
The biggest issue for Breen appeared to be looking after the studs on his tires – a challenge that was in all fairness present for everyone on just the second rally with Pirelli and a brand new event to learn.
But with less mileage comes less knowledge and with less knowledge can come less confidence, and thus a vicious circle will ensue.
We are in no position to suggest what Hyundai should or shouldn’t do, but it looks fairly clear that Breen could very easily be capable of winning rallies if his bank of experience were to increase.
There were glimpses of his clear potential, in particular on the powerstage when he beat Neuville by 0.1s and only lost out on all five points by 0.3s.
He was under pressure heading into that stage given the time he had lost to Elfyn Evans on the previous stage, but Breen performed with aplomb after making a breakthrough with how to best drive the i20 Coupe WRC.
Breen can be his own worst enemy at points, but he can still be pleased with fourth on Arctic Rally Finland in the circumstances. It is however a mark of the man that he probably won’t be.
M-Sport’s difficulties further exposed
M-Sport’s struggles over the last 12 months since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic are well documented, so we won’t waste any of your time recounting them here.
The lack of performance from the team’s Ford Fiesta WRC on the high-speed rallies is also well trodden ground as M-Sport doesn’t have the same budget available as Toyota and Hyundai to regularly develop the aerodynamics. And any budget it does have, it is wisely choosing to pour into its 2022 challenger.
However, what’s concerning about the Arctic Rally Finland performance is that neither Teemu Suninen nor Gus Greensmith had a particularly bad rally.
Greensmith felt he wasn’t quick enough out of the blocks but aside from that, he believes he was “driving really well” for the most part.
“Stage four and five were about as good as I’ve driven ever on snow so I was happy with myself but you get to the end of the stage and it’s like eight, nine tenths a kilometer [down] and it’s like I don’t understand why,” he told DirtFish.
Suninen felt similarly, saying: “I had all the time a good rhythm and good feeling inside the car.
“In slower sections we were able to be fastest, equal with Ott who was fastest, but then when average speed is over 130kph we start to lose.”
The net result was telling. Suninen was eighth, Greensmith was ninth with both cars over two minutes off the lead on an event where gaps were usually quite close.
This lackluster run will be vindicated if M-Sport’s 2022 runner is an out-of-the-box winner – something M-Sport has strong pedigree in producing – but that doesn’t make the quicker rallies like Arctic Rally Finland any more galling for its drivers this year.
Rally2 regression always works
Taking the step back to Rally2 machinery in order to revitalize a stalling World Rally Championship career is almost so popular it can be considered fashionable nowadays. But Esapekka Lappi’s run to 10th overall and first in WRC2 certainly proved the merit in the move.
In a way, Lappi’s victory was a disappointment in that it was so dominant; ironic given he put Andreas Mikkelsen, a man who openly claimed he wanted to “dominate” every rally he started this year, into the shade.
The Rally2 entry across the board was mouth-watering for Arctic Rally Finland, but Lappi destroyed them all to win eight out of the event’s 10 stages and win by 47.7s.
Of course Lappi spent several years in what were then called R5 cars before his WRC graduation in 2017, but he hadn’t driven one on a rally in over four years and had never piloted Volkswagen’s Polo GTI R5 before.
It was a classy performance that, as it has in the case of Mikkelsen and also Elfyn Evans in the past, did his reputation absolutely no harm at all. Imagine for a second Lappi was still driving for M-Sport; the best he would have likely managed would have probably been eighth.
In a car that Lappi was able to challenge for and ultimately claim a victory in (it’s irrelevant that that victory wasn’t the overall one), he truly showed what he can do. A weekend well spent.
Arctic was a superb super-sub
The WRC fraternity is becoming rather accustomed to brand-new rallies such is the current global situation. But just like Estonia and Monza Rally last year, Arctic Rally Finland delivered on every level imaginable.
The rally was brought in to deputize for Rally Sweden which, ironically, had received more snowfall in 2021 than in many of the recent years where it had a snow-based rally to run.
Being based in the Arctic Circle meant conditions were always going to be perfect for winter rallying on the Arctic, and the stages were incredible – for fans, photographers and drivers alike.
Organizing any round of the world championship requires a massive investment in time and money, so doing it in the matter of weeks is simply mind blowing.
Several elements were against the Arctic organizers, not least the fact that the regular Arctic Lapland Rally – a Finnish national round – had run just four weeks earlier and they had to find a way to both freshen the route up and also use stages that had already been rallied on.
The rally winner was impressed with what he saw.
It’s very special. This event definitely was worth being a part of the world championship,” Tänak told DirtFish.
“The stages were more than demanding, and it was kind of an extreme challenge. We had more than perfect winter conditions, so everything ran really smooth, no delays, no nothing.
“Absolutely no complaints, so I think we should give them good praise for that.”
Who are we to argue with that appraisal?