Ott Tänak’s suspended one-round ban from the 2021 World Rally Championship sparked plenty of debate across social media.
There was an overwhelming feeling that this was incredibly unjust; that the punishment really didn’t fit the crime. This was no doubt marred by the fact several other penalties had already been handed out throughout the Monte Carlo Rally weekend.
So why was Tänak penalized in such a manner for driving his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC back to service with just three freely rotating wheels?
Here, DirtFish explains the origins of Article 34.1.5 of the WRC’s sporting regulations that Tänak was in breach of, and looks at previous examples of the penalty being applied to finally determine the validity of the punishment.
Why is it a penalty?
Rallying is a unique code of motorsport. Unlike circuit racing or even rallycross, rally cars are fully road legal and in fact – with the exception of the majority of the 2020 season finale at Monza – need to frequently travel on the public roads as that leads them to the closed special stages.
This means that rally cars must abide by road traffic laws as well as adhering to the various technical regulations and specifications mandated by the championship they are competing in.
Marcus Grönholm knows this only too well. On Rally GB back in 2003, the then Peugeot driver broke the front-left wheel on his Peugeot 206 WRC; the wheel hanging at a 45-degree angle to the wheel arch.
On the road section out of the fourth stage, he attracted the attention of the local police who duly stopped him as they would anybody who was driving a damaged car. An entertaining exchange then took place between Grönholm and a Welsh police officer, with Grönholm saying: “I know I can drive, it’s if you let me drive.”
The Welsh police officer won.
It was three years later in 2006 however that the FIA realized it had to take action. Sébastien Loeb (pictured above) was the man in the spotlight this time, after he had picked up a rear-left puncture on the last stage of the penultimate day of that year’s Acropolis Rally in Greece.
Loeb nursed his Citroën Xsara WRC through the 45-mile journey back from Psatha where the stage had been based to service at the Olympic Stadium but, as he did so, the rear of the car began to spectacularly disintegrate.
Parts of the rear suspension had been obliterated and began to fly off the Xsara as it drove down the motorway. Loeb arrived at service without a rear axle at all.
This was undeniably dangerous, so in 2007 the FIA introduced a new rule that stated that all competing cars had to have four rotating wheels and tires at all times on the road section between stages.
It is this rule that Tänak breached when he drove back to Gap with just three tires on his Hyundai.
When else has the penalty been applied?
The best and most recent example comes from the European Rally Championship and the final round of the 2020 season, the Canary Islands Rally.
Nil Solans – the 2017 Junior World Rally Champion – made a superb start in his Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo to lead after the rally’s first seven stages before falling to second after a spin.
But four stages later, Solans had hit the front again, leading M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux by 1.6 seconds in what could have been a thrilling fight to the finish with six stages left to run.
However, despite moving into the lead, all was not well with Solans’s Fabia: “We have two punctures, there were a lot of rocks in the middle,” he said, before the killer blow came.
“And we have only one spare.”
That part was key. With two stages to run until service, not only did it lead to him falling down to 15th position and 3m03s behind Fourmaux, it also later led to his exclusion.
To reach SS12, SS13 and indeed service, Solans had driven his Škoda with just three fully functioning wheels. That’s a clear breach of Article 34.1.5 which states: “On a road section that is a public road and at the start of a stage, a competition car may only be driven on four freely rotating wheels and tires.”
So while Solans finished 14th on the road, the result was later taken away from him. In Tänak’s case, Hyundai had already retired his car once he had reached service so no exclusion could be applied.
Is the decision fair?
In a word: yes.
To be more expansive, the rub seems to be with the punishment rather than the crime. But to quickly address those that may feel driving along the road with three wheels is acceptable, there’s a reason you wouldn’t head out and do that in your road car. It puts other road users at risk.
The punishment does appear quite harsh at first glance as there wasn’t any malice in Tänak’s conduct. All he was trying to do was desperately keep his rally alive. He is fortunate the local police didn’t catch him though!
The key thing to remember is this is a suspended sentence, so don’t expect Tänak to be absent from Arctic Rally Finland next month. What it does do is hang a cloud above his head. If he commits a similar offence this year, he will be forced to watch his colleagues from the sidelines.
The idea behind that is to warn him that what he did was dangerous, because that can’t really be disputed.
Ultimately rules are rules, they aren’t there to be broken. And if they are, there will be consequences.