No important decision is ever made with ease, whether you’re working a part-time job or spearheading a manufacturer’s assault in the World Rally Championship.
But if you’re working the latter, best be prepared for an awful lot of scrutiny – particularly when it comes to decisions over drivers.
When said together, the words ‘team’ and ‘orders’ resonate as swear words in the motorsport fan’s dictionary, but they’re prevalent everywhere in all the top championships as they’re often a means to an end.
Rallying has had its fair share of examples. Colin McRae’s rather public initial refusal to obey David Richards’ request and finish behind team-mate Carlos Sainz in Spain back in 1995 was the clearest case study of what can happen when tempers run high.
But it’s no thing of the past. Just four months ago on that sunny Sunday morning in Lamia on the Acropolis Rally, it was all unraveling at Hyundai with a first-ever 1-2-3 on the line but an opportunity for Ott Tänak to narrow Kalle Rovanperä’s championship lead.
Hyundai’s president, Sean Kim, was the one who made the call. The rally win would be Thierry Neuville’s, despite Tänak’s case that the extra seven points he’d bank for first wouldn’t rob Hyundai of points or a result, but would strengthen his own title bid.
On this week’s regular edition of SPIN, The Rally Pod, DirtFish Rally School’s chief instructor Nate Tennis and former Toyota, Mitsubishi and Subaru sporting director in the WRC George Donaldson revisited that particular scenario as they investigated what life inside a struggling team is like: Donaldson sharing his vast experience to illustrate how the start of 2022 must have been within Alzenau.
Looking back, it could be argued that Hyundai’s strategy was the final straw that convinced Tänak to leave and ultimately seek refuge at his old team, M-Sport, for this season.
In reality, Tänak’s made was likely made long before then. But Acropolis 2022 illustrated the political and fragile nature of team orders in the WRC. One party is always going to feel aggrieved.
“I would’ve given Ott that win in the hope that he could have done it, and he could have turned that around without any risk at all,” Donaldson said.
“It was a riskless turnaround. Why didn’t they do it? There’s factors in there, but I would’ve given that one to Ott. Hard decision – but would have done it.
“I’ve been in similar circumstances before, but as a team we’ve made undertakings to a driver before the event. So for instance at Toyota in 1998…”
And that’s where we’ll cut Donaldson off for a moment, because team orders and decisions don’t always have to be negative for the disadvantaged driver.
Sometimes – and ironically we’ve also seen it at Hyundai when Neuville was kicked back to the second-string ‘N’ team at times in 2015 – a kick to the confidence can inspire a total resurgence.
In the first full season of the Corolla WRC, Carlos Sainz proved to be Toyota’s clear number one driver. His team-mate, fellow world champion, Didier Auriol meanwhile wasn’t initially producing the form expected of him, and at a time when Toyota Belgium driver Freddy Loix had just secured a second WRC podium in Portugal.
“Didier Auriol just wasn’t delivering results and Freddy Loix was more consistent and capable of beating Didier on a number of events,” Donaldson remembered.
“And it came to Spain, where we decided that we would drop Didier from the points [scoring car] and put Freddy Loix up for points along with Carlos Sainz.”
Trust was therefore placed in the young upstart, not the established pro. And the stakes couldn’t be higher as, at that point, Toyota shared the lead of the manufacturers’ standings with eventual champion Mitsubishi.
But with his back against the wall, the beast was awoken within Auriol.
“Didier, when he had the bit between the teeth and when he decided that everything was right, he was unbeatable on his day and he just drove that rally from the word go,” said Donaldson.
“Ove Andersson and I decided that we would drop Didier but we also knew that dropping him would give him the realization that he’s going to deliver or he’s going to lose his drive – and he’ll probably go out and win.
“So at the point in which we did that, I said to Ove ‘we need to tell Didier he’s playing the team game. Even if you’re winning, we’ll give you the win bonus, whatever you need but you’re going to have to give way to Carlos or Freddy to win.’
Everyone thought we would turn him around but we didn'tGeorge Donaldson
“Ove said ‘no, no, no if we pull Didier we’re going to let Didier win. If Didier earns it, Didier earns it.’ And Ove was a driver, so there’s the driver’s perspective.
“Ove Andersson, if he’d been at Hyundai, he would have let Thierry win, he would’ve lent towards that. You won it, you win it and you deserve it.”
As it proved, Loix went on to record his equal best WRC result in second, but the car ahead of him was the Corolla many expected to be wearing #5 but instead was carrying #9.
The victory was his first in three years.
“Everyone thought we would turn him around but we didn’t,” Donaldson said.
“Ultimately did that cost us a championship? I think it was that close. I think it might have actually cost us the championship – that and a number of other things.
“Poor performances, I’ll fess up they were poor performances from the team and some questionable decision making along the way but there were factors involved in it.”
But that decision to give Auriol’s place in the team to Loix for Spain 25 years ago most certainly wasn’t questionable. It may have been at the time, but the four points Toyota sacrificed were paid back in inheriting a charged-up driver and an immaculate rally-winning performance.