Round four of the 2022 World Rally Championship season is in the books and it yielded yet another victory for Toyota’s Kalle Rovanperä.
With a 46-point lead over his closest challenger Thierry Neuville, Rovanperä is now clearly going to be very difficult to catch this season but the 21-year-old’s roaring success was far from the only talking point from a thrilling Rally Portugal.
Here’s what we learned from last weekend’s Portuguese adventure:
Rovanperä has mastered the final world champion skill
We said last Monday that Kalle Rovanperä had one final skill to master. One last box to tick on the list of essential traits for a world champion rally driver: starting first on the road on a gravel rally and winning it anyway.
In the modern era, it’s pretty much the hardest scenario in which to win a rally from. Sébastien Ogier did it constantly during his dominant period at Volkswagen. As did Sébastien Loeb during his Citroën days.
Before last week, Rovanperä hadn’t done it. He’d not had the chance, of course, having never led the world championship standings heading to a gravel event.
First time of asking, job done. He was 10th after the first gravel stage on Friday morning but refused to lose his cool and by the end of said day, had ascended to second and right onto the tail of Elfyn Evans.
From there, he simply outdrove his team-mate to the finish. That bit we knew he could do – he demonstrated as much in Sweden.
There is nothing left to check off the list – except for win the world championship itself.
Hyundai’s gravel gambit might’ve failed
Hyundai had made a bet before the season began. Forget asphalt, it’s not important. This new i20 N Rally1 was designed for gravel. All the chips had been put on the loose stuff – it makes up the bulk of the calendar, so losing some ground on sealed surfaces would be worth it.
But its drivers were in for a rude awakening in Portugal: it turns out the car’s not up to much on gravel either. Whether Hyundai was going to be able to save its season and rival Toyota in the championship table was down to its gravel performance.
While Thierry Neuville spent most of his time complaining about how unreliable the car was – a different problem in itself – Ott Tänak was more concerned about how rubbish it was to drive when it did work properly. He didn’t like the balance. The suspension wasn’t right. And so on.
This is a big problem for Hyundai. Had the car’s supposed gravel promise come true, Neuville and Tänak would perhaps have been appeased. Instead, they’re quite openly fed up. They’re treading dangerously close to suffering a mutiny.
Neuville was mad that his driveshaft broke and kicked him out of the lead fight and down to the barren wasteland of the lower midfield, to the point he brought photographic evidence to show the world what had gone wrong.
And then there was this sly dig at the powerstage finish line: “We can congratulate Toyota for their strong result this weekend and their reliability,” he quipped.
Contrast his Friday comments – where he pointed out that he’d suffered exactly 14 technical problems since Monte Carlo 2021 – with that comment and you get the picture.
Loeb shows M-Sport may have been too hard on Fourmaux
Adrien Fourmaux has been through the ringer this year. His aeroplane-like crash on the Monte was a terrible start. He’d barely patched things up with management when he went and dumped his Puma in a farmer’s backyard in Croatia.
There were threats of being benched. Real threats. It was a distinct possibility that he’d be told not to show up in Portugal at all. After all, who needs him when you’ve got a nine-time world champion in the lineup?
On paper Sébastien Loeb was no sure thing to contend for victory. His road position wasn’t great and he’d not been in the car since Monte, pre-event testing aside. And yet there he was after three stages, atop the leaderboard. Hands were likely being rubbed with glee.
Then Le Maestro made the most uncharacteristic of mistakes. On cold gravel tires on a very short asphalt section, he slid wide and into a wall, destroying the right-rear corner and forcing him to retire on the spot.
It was a shock. It was what you’d probably call a rookie error. Yet it was committed by the most successful driver in WRC history.
Séb apologized to the team, of course. But it was a catastrophic error that ultimately killed his team’s best hopes of a podium finish, maybe even a win.
A confidence-shattered Fourmaux, meanwhile, was plodding along near the back of the field. When he finally got himself a purple split time, a puncture stopped him in his tracks. Carrying only one spare, that brief flash of pace was quickly shut down and he went back to tortoise mode.
It’s interesting to think what would have been said of Loeb’s accident by the baying social media mob had it been committed by any of the other M-Sport drivers.
Greensmith? See, told you, pay driver. Loubet? No surprise, he was rubbish in the customer Hyundai. Breen? He’s cracking under pressure of being de facto team leader. Fourmaux? What else did you expect?
But because Loeb’s proven what he’s really made of time and time again, we were all shocked for a couple of hours then quickly moved on. Mistakes happen. Even really simple ones to the best in the world.
I doubt Séb is going to get read the riot act. It won’t make him any better. And it might be worth considering it won’t make Fourmaux any better either.
Puma is faster but hardly more reliable than the i20
We knew the Ford Puma was a match for the Toyota Yaris on a sealed surface – at least a low-adhesion one. Loeb had proven as much on the Monte.
And he’d gone and proven the car’s gravel prowess in Portugal, for that glorious but extremely brief period where he was fighting for the lead.
What’s perhaps more concerning than the result lost through Loeb’s crash is the litany of issues that befell every single vessel of the five-strong Puma armada.
Loeb’s engine conked out. Not a great start, yes. But this is, in a sense, a legacy issue – Rally1 engines are a carryover from the World Rally Car era.
It’s more that the other issues occurred across multiple cars at once. Dust ingress turning the cockpit of three Pumas into a Dakar bivouac simultaneously was a concern – even more so was two very similar brake problems across both Breen and Loubet’s cars at roughly the same time.
Thus far Toyota has suffered zero retirements due to mechanical failures with its new GR Yaris (Evans parking up with a hybrid issue after a crash into a snowbank in Sweden notwithstanding). The benchmark is extremely high, And it seems it’s not just Hyundai that’s falling short of that level, based on how Portugal played out.
Suninen’s Hyundai switch hasn’t changed anything
Teemu Suninen had put in the hard work. He’d done what few thought possible – bolted himself into a Hyundai i20 N Rally2 and, somehow, made it go faster than the seemingly unbeatable combination of Andreas Mikkelsen and a Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo on merit.
It was extraordinary. Had he pulled it off, it would surely be time to start asking the question – was M-Sport wrong to fall a touch out of love with him? Should Hyundai consider a fourth i20 Rally1 in Finland and Estonia?
And then he reminded everyone why he’d fallen out of favor at M-Sport in the first place. It felt all too familiar.
Few doubt Suninen has the speed. It’s been clear since the first time he set foot in a Fiesta WRC back in 2017 that he was rapid. He has pace in abundance. It’s something else.
Five years have passed since his first Rally Finland in 2017. Back then he was an astounding second overall and battling to keep Elfyn Evans and Juho Hänninen at bay in only his second start in a top-level car. Then he spun on the penultimate stage.
Understandable. He’s a rookie under pressure. It happens. And he still collected fourth in the end.
Unlike on that opening stage in Monte Carlo last year. Eleven minutes of heaven followed by a rally-ending crash.
Five years have passed since that brilliant performance in Finland. Come the final stage of Rally Portugal 2022, he wasn’t even under pressure – the incentive to push this time was for the bonus five powerstage points on offer in the WRC2 standings.
Instead he ended with nothing. Again.
Hyundai knows he is quick. That’s no doubt why it hired him to win the WRC2 title and show that the i20 N Rally2 is a match for the Fabia. But he also showed why he doesn’t have a factory drive in a Rally1 car anymore.
And it’s unlikely he will ever again until the crashes stop.