If we didn’t see an Ott Tänak Rally Finland win coming, we really didn’t see a Tänak victory coming on Ypres Rally Belgium, did we?
Rather, it was the other Hyundai with the black, yellow and red-striped flag on the window that was supposed to finish first, so said the form book.
But rallies aren’t won on paper, they’re won on roads, and Tänak again drove superbly to record his first back-to-back wins since joining Hyundai at the start of the 2020 season.
Ypres was a dramatic and pulsating affair that had a little bit of everything, so there’s plenty to unpack from round nine of this year’s World Rally Championship. But here are the main things we learned from Ypres in 2022:
Evans will win again soon
He’s not the only one (sorry Thierry Neuville), but Elfyn Evans is currently undergoing a win drought and no matter what he does, he can’t seem to get his GR Yaris Rally1 over the line first.
That’s now four times this season he’s finished as runner-up and in almost every instance Evans could easily have won had the cards been dealt differently. That was certainly the case in Ypres.
It would be flippant to bang the drum that Evans would’ve won Ypres had co-driver Scott Martin not checked him into SS8 on the wrong minute and thus earned the crew a 10-second penalty. Technically yes, if you discount the penalty Evans would’ve won by five seconds instead of losing by five seconds, but you can’t alter one variable and assume all the others remain constant – that’s just not realistic.
But what’s clear is from a pure driving perspective, Evans was good enough to get the job done in Belgium. And that’s massively encouraging, because we haven’t often been able to say that this season. There were no mistakes (and no throwing the toys out the pram when Martin made his miscalculation) and crucially Evans’ affinity with his Toyota seemed to have stepped up.
When luck isn’t with you, it isn’t with you. Evans is currently waiting for that wave to catch him, but when he does he’ll be back on that top step again.
Solberg is back
It’s amazing how quickly the script can flip. After Finland, plenty were quick to barrage Oliver Solberg. How could he make this mistake? He shouldn’t have stepped up to a Rally1 car so early! He only has that seat because of his famous surname!
Such talk has disappeared rapidly, hasn’t it? There simply was no better way for Solberg to bounce back from the most difficult moment of his young career with a career-best result. And Solberg deserves massive credit for pulling that off, as it takes plenty of mental fortitude to block out the negativity and get the job done under pressure.
Before the rally Solberg reckoned he might be in for a good result, predicting that if he stuck to his firm plan and avoided trouble, he could sneak up the leaderboard. And that’s exactly what transpired. There was a very mature head on Solberg’s young shoulders in Belgium, and he proved he can execute team instructions and bring his car to the end – the end result was just a handy bonus.
An obvious contrast can be made with Adrien Fourmaux, a driver Solberg was battling with, as to just how important that trait is. Fourmaux was having a brilliant Ypres and had the measure of Solberg on pure pace, but where did that get him?
It would be unfair to speculate too much as we’re still yet to hear from Fourmaux as to what happened in his accident, and he was feeling unwell at the time. But Solberg’s brilliant bounceback couldn’t have been any more different to Fourmaux’s thump back down to earth – just when it looked like he had turned a corner.
M-Sport is in a horrible place
It’s often said in professional sport there’s no place for sentiment, but please do spare a thought for the guys and girls in Dovenby Hall just now. What a horrible position M-Sport Ford finds itself in after one of, if not the, worst rally it has ever experienced.
Simply nothing went right in Belgium. The car was quick but perhaps not quite as quick as the rest, and not a single one of its three drivers got through the three days without making a mistake. Some even made more than one mistake.
It would be fatuous to start playing a blame game and throwing individuals under the bus; instead what this team needs now is a massive pick-me-up. In that sense, Sébastien Loeb’s return on the Acropolis next month cannot have come at a more important time, but that in turn puts Loeb under massive pressure to get a result in Greece to save this from spiralling out of control.
The early season narrative has changed dramatically. M-Sport is no longer the team with a trophy in its hands or the best car within its service structure. And with its driver lineup weaker than the opposition, that’s now being exposed massively.
But what else can the team do? It can’t afford to radically overhaul its driver roster with its more limited budget, and it can’t develop its car as much as Toyota and Hyundai either for the same reason.
Troubled times indeed.
Rovanperä still has a mistake in him
Kalle Rovanperä became the forgotten man of Ypres Rally Belgium. This was the first weekend where he had a mathematical chance at putting the championship beyond the reach of his rivals, but instead he opened the door with the sort of mistake we’d begun to think Rovanperä was somehow above.
His first stage time was sensational – 2.5s up on anyone else – and actually he could very easily have dominated Ypres had his second stage gone differently. But as soon as live TV cameras captured the frustration building within the #69 Toyota, we soon discovered that Rovanperä and Jonne Halttunen are still human.
It was unusual to see them so worked up (caused by what Rovanperä later described as a “big-mess” at the start-line) but what happened a few minutes later was a collectors’ item – Rovanperä turning in at the wrong point for the left in a right-left sequence, falling off-line and then off the road, into a ditch and into a roll.
Ultimately it doesn’t really matter in the context of this season. Rovanperä has been so good over the first half that even a Belgian blunder won’t blunt his voyage to the world title. But, with Tänak in such rich form (he’s scored 11 more points than Rovanperä in the past three rallies) this mistake will encourage the rest that Rovanperä can crack after all. He isn’t unbeatable if challenged consistently.
Although it must be said his damage limitation job in Belgium was remarkable. Given Tänak won and Rovanperä had the thing in a ball on Friday, to only drop 22 points with yet another powerstage win (his sixth of the season and third in a row) was a solid save.
No love lost between Neuville and Tänak
It was an ironic twist of fate that Thierry Neuville should pull up to the stop control of the powerstage and reveal that a transmission had hampered his push for bonus points – for that was the very thing that afflicted team-mate Ott Tänak and Neuville was keen to dismiss.
Intra-team rivalry is fairly rare in the WRC now. The days of Colin McRae kicking bins and Gilles Panizzi and François Delecour having a public standoff are (sadly or happily depending on your viewpoint) behind us.
But it was a poetic coincidence that Neuville and Tänak should have something of a fallout in the media 11 years to the day when Sébastien Ogier and Loeb’s relationship at Citroën exploded with Ogier’s famous “at least now I can see there is justice in the sport” line.
Neuville lit the fuse when he was told about Tänak’s transmission problems at the end of SS12, and responded with: “I think if Ott has problems then I have only three cylinders.”
“I don’t know what he was doing or what were his intentions,” was Tänak’s retort in the media zone. “I just couldn’t understand, it is what it is. I don’t really care to be honest.”
Tänak got the last laugh as he won and Neuville went off, and it turns out the whole thing was a bit of a misunderstanding anyway that the pair have now put behind them.
But it was nice and juicy while it lasted, wasn’t it? And misunderstanding or not, it does suggest bitterness could build in a way we haven’t seen within the Toyota camp if Hyundai becomes the WRC’s dominant force and Neuville and Tänak are squaring off for the title.
Ypres can be a good TV spectacle
As much as Ypres is a fantastic spectating experience, its introduction to the WRC last year wasn’t exactly a corker for those of us not fortunate enough to be there. So much so that it actually prompted us to run a multi-voice feature wondering if asphalt rallies are entertaining enough for the WRC.
The same accusations could not be thrown at Ypres this time around though. The removal of the other flat spectacle of Spa-Francorchamps was a positive step, but what really worked was the on-stage action and battles left us gripped. You couldn’t take your eyes off it, whereas last year the rally was over by Friday – Hyundai team-mates Neuville and Breen checking out with the advantage of their previous Ypres experience and not racing each other thereafter.
This year, with the playing field levels from an experience standpoint, it became far less predictable, and therefore far more interesting. And Ypres proved to bite just as hard as in 2021, but this time gobbled up higher-profile names: the points leader and last year’s winner among them.
Ypres’ future in the WRC is currently unclear – it’s yet to actually be formally announced as a WRC round along with the rest of the corner, both times coming off the bench in place of a failed Rally UK bid.
Without the WRC it will continue to be a star attraction as one of the must-do rallies in any driver’s career. Ypres can stand on its own feet, without any major championship. But with the WRC it can throw up a truly unique challenge that perhaps only Rally Germany has been able to rival over the years.
And if there were any doubts about the entertainment value about the rally before, those thoughts have swiftly been erased 12 months on.