Two rounds into the 2023 World Rally Championship season, and it’s clear we have a potential classic on our hands.
Claiming his first WRC win in M-Sport Ford overalls since Rally Germany 2017, Ott Tänak has rocketed from fifth to first in the drivers’ championship while the rest somehow stayed put after what was a spectacular and dramatic contest.
So what did we learn after the WRC’s second visit to Sweden’s snowy north in Umeå?
Tänak is as good as he’s ever been
After Tänak’s gutsy Rally Finland win last year for Hyundai, DirtFish’s Colin Clark has since nicknamed him ‘the warrior’ for his continued success in the face of adversity.
And make no mistake, Tänak was facing some adversity at the weekend.
The timesheets might fool you – Tänak was never lower than second overall at any point throughout the weekend – but Tänak, just as he was on round one in Monte Carlo, was having to drive through some discomfort aboard his Puma Rally1.
The fact he was able to produce a rally-winning performance when things clearly weren’t truly to his liking was both absolutely remarkable but also absolutely terrifying if you don’t drive or work for M-Sport.
The last few seasons have been trying for Tänak to say the least, so for him to see his name back on top of the WRC standings for the first time in well over three years must be deeply gratifying.
He’s driving at a level these days that is hugely ominous when you consider that the best is yet to come from him in a Puma.
Evans isn’t through his struggles
It’s become a rather big talking point in the WRC of late: whether Elfyn Evans will feel at one with his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1.
He started the season proving that he was – just like he had been on the 2022 season finale in Japan. But he took a massive step backwards in Sweden to record what was a confidence-sapping result.
To cut Evans some slack, it wasn’t a great rally across the board for Toyota. Kalle Rovanperä wasn’t happy with his car in second pass conditions and Takamoto Katsuta was caught out on Friday afternoon and crashed out, but Evans just never found the feeling he desired from the front of his Yaris.
With testing at such a premium these days, working through these problems before the rally is never easy and, once you’re there, what you can then change is so limited that Evans basically had to just battle on through it.
We all know how last year unravelled for the two-time WRC runner-up, and his 29 points on the board are far better than the four he had accumulated 12 months ago.
But the speed isn’t – it’s worse. And that’s got to be a worry.
Abiteboul isn’t shy of difficult calls
Fair play to the commenters on DirtFish Live Center who saw this coming – I can’t honestly say that I did.
But, when all focus was on two individual battles between Tänak and Craig Breen for first and Thierry Neuville and Rovanperä third, new Hyundai boss Cyril Abiteboul had done the math and spotted a gap that would do his lead driver rather nicely.
Breen was asked to check into the final regroup one minute late so that he could pick up a 10s time penalty and drop behind Neuville – thus giving Neuville, Hyundai’s biggest hope in the drivers’ championship, three extra championship points.
The call backfired as a scrappy final stage from Neuville meant Breen – who started the powerstage just half a second behind – accidentally went past again (without the benefit of splits to judge his pace relative to Neuville) but the very fact it was made was telling.
Team orders aren’t uncommon in rallying or indeed motorsport as a whole, but to do so as early as round two was a real statement of intent from Abiteboul.
No matter whether you agree or disagree with the merits of it (I happen to think it was a smart call), Abiteboul clearly isn’t afraid to be bold and do what he feels needs to be done to bring some silverware back to Alzenau.
Solberg’s the WRC2 favorite
Picking a championship favorite in a field as quality as this year’s crop of WRC2 drivers isn’t easy, but Oliver Solberg marked himself out as the one to beat with a dominant drive in Sweden.
His rally management was impeccable – pushing hard to lay down a marker where it was appropriate but throttling back to minimize the risks thereafter. He was, with the possible exception of Teemu Suninen, the only leading runner to not make any mistakes and fully deserved his win.
Of course there are some drivers who are yet to properly get their campaigns underway – not least Gus Greensmith who’ll debut in a Škoda next month – but Solberg’s already become the benchmark with first his speed in Monte Carlo (where he competed but wasn’t scoring points) and now his speed and control in Sweden.
Others were able to match him on speed, like Toksport team-mates Sami Pajari and defending WRC2 champion Emil Lindholm for example, but both made mistakes.
Pajari lost the rear and suffered a heart-stopping fifth-gear spin, while Lindholm planted his Fabia into a snowbank and lost 1m30s as he was forced to stop and clear the radiator of snow.
It’ll be a thrilling fight all season, but at the moment Solberg looks like he’s the one to beat.
National rally mileage counts
It was no coincidence that Esapekka Lappi, Takamoto Katsuta and Ott Tänak were the three fastest drivers through the first pass of the Rally Sweden shakedown stage, given all three had done a national rally at the weekend.
With the number of permitted test days reduced for 2023, small non-WRC events are set to become increasingly appealing to teams in a bid to get their drivers up to speed and more dialled in ahead of an upcoming WRC round. Lappi, Katsuta and Tänak certainly proved the value in it last weekend.
It would be remiss to suggest that Tänak couldn’t have won had he not driven on the Otepää Winter Rally the weekend prior, or that Katsuta wouldn’t have won a stage on Friday or Lappi wouldn’t have been running in the podium places before a delaminated tire spat him into the snow.
But it would be equally difficult to deny that their additional seat time and mileage made some sort of difference, big or small.
It was telling that both Elfyn Evans and Pierre-Louis Loubet made comments throughout the weekend that a national rally as preparation would have been beneficial.
Lappi, Katsuta and Tänak have laid down the blueprint. Expect more drivers to push their teams to follow suit.
Breen’s 2022 was a blip
The big question hanging over Craig Breen’s head as he sought refuge at his old home Hyundai following his disastrous season with M-Sport was whether he had lost it. Was 2022 a one-off, or was Breen now damaged goods?
The resounding answer to that second question is no. Breen was back to his very, very best in Sweden – and rose to that level immediately.
He had the best of the road conditions which was undeniably an advantage, but he was absolutely on song with his i20 N Rally1. It wasn’t really the fact he was leading that mattered, it was the fact he appeared stress-free and able to push to the limits without things going awry.
Breen didn’t win the unofficial accolade for best quote of the weekend with his “I should be the mayor of Brattby” line – that was reserved for Rovanperä’s witty “I got a message before the start of the stage that traction had left the chat” quip – but on the same stage Breen’s stage-end reaction was just wonderful to see as he cackled with joy.
Although he was pipped to the post by Tänak and his old team, this was a massive statement drive from Breen that reminded the rallying world just what he’s got.
The only question that remains now is how would he perform over a full season in the Hyundai environment? Unfortunately, we have to wait until 2024 at the very earliest to potentially find that one out.