We all had our own versions of a pre-event script, but did many of us really have an Ott Tänak and Hyundai win as a plot twist?
Rally Finland always delivers an epic World Rally Championship showing, but this year’s edition was truly fascinating and exciting.
Since its return to the World Rally Championship five years ago, Toyota had never been defeated on Rally Finland. But this year, it didn’t even have a shot at the lead of the rally as Hyundai was out front throughout.
However Hyundai’s smiles were contrasted by M-Sport’s frowns as despite fielding five cars in Finland, it failed to finish in the top six.
Here’s what we learned from Rally Finland 2022:
Rovanperä can be beaten!
Here’s a galling stat for you. Elfyn Evans has not beaten Kalle Rovanperä on a single round of this year’s world championship. Nor has Thierry Neuville. When you bear this in mind, it’s little wonder that neither of them has produced a credible title challenge this season.
Statistically Ott Tänak is now Rovanperä’s closest challenger (if he has any anymore) as he moved up to second place in the championship after Finland. And Finland showed that, all things completely level, Tänak is more than a match for this year’s runaway superstar.
Whether you believe Hyundai that it really did have zero hopes last weekend, or Toyota that the team was outwardly playing down its chances as a tactical ploy, is by the by. What really matters is, in a straight fight, Rovanperä was beaten for the first time in 2022.
It might be too late to save this year’s championship race, but it’s massively reassuring for the future to know that the WRC may not become a one-man show quite yet.
A word for Tänak’s performance though. No drive has been as deserving of a WRC victory as that for quite some time.
Rovanperä is thinking like a champion
It was difficult to believe Kalle Rovanperä when he suggested he would prioritize the championship over a Rally Finland win.
When he’s made winning look so easy this year, why wouldn’t he go all-guns-blazing for the most important victory on all his CV? After all, if he went off he’d still have a huge championship lead.
But it turns out Rovanperä is very much a chip off the old bloke, learning from the driver he looks set to succeed as world champion: Sébastien Ogier. His pre-event realism of what running first on the road could cost him, and that his gap to the second-placed driver in the championship (Thierry Neuville) was most important was very Ogier-esque. As was his resultant performance.
It would be wrong to say Rovanperä didn’t try and win in Finland, but it would be equally remiss to suggest he gave it as much as Tänak did for those maximum points. Banking 18 was better than gambling seven in the pursuit for 25 when Neuville was down in fifth, and once beaten on Sunday morning’s opener Rovanperä dialled down the risks and settled for the runner-up spot.
He’s a massive, massive favorite for this year’s championship so this move maybe did little to change his destiny in 2022, but it’s an important skill to master for the future and Rovanperä looks like he already has.
Hyundai is a stronger player than everyone thought
We’ve alluded to it in the introduction to this feature, but nobody really saw this one coming, did they? There were even some fears that it would be another Toyota 1-2-3-4 lockout, that’s how fancied Hyundai’s service park neighbor was.
But why would anyone have believed in Hyundai when it didn’t even seem to believe in itself? The message to the outside world couldn’t have been more clear: we cannot win in Finland. Yet that’s exactly what it did.
What does that tell us? Two things, mainly.
Firstly, it cannot afford to lose the services of Ott Tänak. Thierry Neuville has never been comfortable on high-speed rallies whereas Tänak excels on them, but the 2m18s gap between the pair at the close of play was stark. Tänak was braver than he’s ever been, pushing through his discomfort to produce a performance for the ages.
But as M-Sport team principal Richard Millener succinctly put it: “You can’t do it without a car.”
Yes, Tänak was superb. But as Kalle Rovanperä was keen to point out, the car wasn’t as poor as it had been made out to be either. The engine has long been a strength of the i20 and on a rally as quick as Finland, that likely made a difference. But it can’t all be brute power that won it. Tänak wasn’t getting the feeling he wanted from the car, but ultimately when it came down to it he and the Hyundai were faster than the Toyotas.
That’s now two wins out of four too, which equals what Rovanperä and Toyota has managed in the same time period. In the right circumstances, there’s no denying Hyundai can be competitive. It just needs to find a larger operating window.
But with home hero Thierry Neuville in its ranks for next week’s Ypres Rally, it’s not a ridiculous thought to contemplate the possibility of back-to-back Hyundai wins, is it?
Lappi still has some rough edges
Maybe Esapekka Lappi was jealous that the freak incident with a rock that broke his windshield and dumped him out of the fight for Rally Finland victory had robbed him of any headlines, and he wanted some of the limelight back.
We’re of course joking, but Lappi should not have found himself generating news on Sunday. With Rovanperä cooling off his quest to beat Tänak to victory, the energy level in the DirtFish newsroom was waning. Only for the cameras to pick up Lappi’s damaged Toyota at the end of the penultimate stage to invigorate us once more.
Was it an unlucky accident, or a result of pushing too hard when he really shouldn’t have been? We’ll let you be the judges of that, but what Finland did show is that Lappi isn’t quite as polished a driver as those he was fighting with at the weekend.
It would perhaps be a bit harsh to expect him to be given his experience deficit this season and indeed last year, but Lappi has only produced one totally clean performance this season – and that was all the way back in February.
Of course it was on home turf, but the speed was massively encouraging last weekend and a podium finish helped Toyota still outscore Hyundai despite it losing its epic Finland record. But Lappi doesn’t look as comfortable on the limit as the Rovanperäs, Tänaks and Neuvilles of this world – something he’ll need to change if he wants to regularly fight them in the future.
M-Sport’s in a dark place
The popular narrative this season has been the struggles afflicting Hyundai team, but at this moment in time things look far darker over at M-Sport. Finland was another disappointing result for a team that has only scored three podiums this season compared to Hyundai’s eight and Toyota’s 12.
M-Sport realistically knew that its shot at the manufacturers’ championship would be compromised this year due to it running two junior drivers – Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux – alongside off-season recruit Craig Breen. But there was genuine optimism that Breen, coupled with a strong car in the Puma Rally1, could challenge for the drivers’ title.
But Breen’s meeting with the stage-side scenery on Saturday typified the new reality. We’re yet to properly hear from Breen so shall reserve judgement as to whether this was unfortunate or a careless error, but M-Sport does potentially need to shoulder some of the blame here after encouraging Breen to throw caution to the wind in Finland. Clearly, he wasn’t being cautious.
The bigger worry however will be the reliability of the Puma Rally1. It’s becoming hard to remember a WRC event where at least one of the M-Sport’s hasn’t encountered some sort of mechanical problem, and in Finland it was only Breen and Greensmith that evaded the misfortune.
Power-steering problems afflicted both Fourmaux and Jari Huttunen, Huttunen encountered a fuel pressure problem and Pierre-Louis Loubet retired before the final stage with an electrical gremlin. No Toyotas retired with mechanical issues, nor even did any of the Hyundais.
There’s work to do in the purple corner.
Solberg needs a reset
It really does hammer home how disappointing Oliver Solberg’s Rally Finland was that it’s easy to forget he was even on the entry list. Crashing on the first real corner of the rally’s forest action put him out on the spot, and a damaged rollcage meant the #2 Hyundai lived in the service park and not on the stages thereafter.
After a patchy campaign in 2021, the last thing Solberg needed was another rocky season this term but unfortunately, through mechanical dramas and driver errors, that’s exactly what’s unfolding.
But Solberg deserves a break. A big one. Learning your craft is a mammoth task in a team that has been all at sea for the most part in 2022. Solberg needs consistency, and unfortunately that’s exactly what his current environment hasn’t really been providing him.
Phases like this can make or break a driver’s career. But Solberg is far too talented an individual for this to wreck him. Maybe those that argued his promotion to the main team came a season too early are dining out on a prediction well called, but such speculation is irrelevant for Solberg who cannot change the past but only influence his future.
In a way it’s a shame he’s in the car for Ypres, because you get the sense the best thing for Solberg right now is a real refresh. Time away to relax, to shake it all off and recharge the batteries to come back re-energized and ready to show the world again just how much potential he still has.