It is, indeed, nice to be nice. But, as Ott Tänak would point out, it’s not in his contract.
The reigning World Rally Champion has caused something of a stir in the service park in recent months. More pertinently, his approach to the media has caused something of a stir.
Not opening his door to answer questions about a suspension issue aboard his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC on the opening day of Rally Italy was, for some, symptomatic of the Estonian’s growing arrogance, a further demonstration of his brazen impudence.
I’m not so sure.
Trust me, I’ve been on the receiving end of one of those withering looks fired over the shoulder once he’s turned on his heel to offer the back of his head as the answer to what I thought a pretty reasonable question.
But what do we want here? Do we want a conveyor belt of automaton programmed to deliver a range of stock answers to stock questions? Or do we want drivers who like to be challenged, drivers who have some spark?
I’ll take the latter.
Everybody loves Petter Solberg. Norway’s 2003 World Rally Champion was – and is – a dream interview. He’s got the smile, the line and the look. With the best will in the world, you never really need your A-game to interview ‘Mr Hollywood’. Packed so full of charisma, charm and chat, he remains a dream to talk to.
Again, do we want all of our drivers to deliver the same way Solberg would?
No. We don’t. The championship needs colour, but drivers like Tänak can provide that in much the same way Solberg does. It’s yin and yang.
Tänak’s body language, his expression and his emotion speak just as loud, if not louder, than any other driver. It just needs translating.
Remember Rally GB in 2018, when his championship chance was shot on Sweet Lamb? The drama of him walking away from his broken car and lying on the ground was far more poignant than a pointless one-liner about jumps and landings.
Go back another couple of years to Poland in 2016, when he lost his win with a puncture on the final stage. Ultimately, he said three words twice. But he packed more feeling and genuine sentiment into those three words than any other driver.
“It’s too much.”
It still brings goosebumps now.
This isn’t a column about me defending the bloke who wears the DirtFish cap. And if you honestly think the hat Tänak’s wearing makes one iota of difference when it comes to answering questions he doesn’t want to answer, then you really don’t know him at all.
No, this is me trying to point out that not everybody’s the same. It’s not for me – or anybody – to say whether Tänak does or doesn’t like the media. But what’s clear is that he sees the opportunity cost of talking to people like me. And that opportunity cost is talking to his team about making his rally car go faster.
That’s all he’s about.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see Ott away from rallies, to see him as a husband, a father and a genuine family man. Trust me, there are few people more warm or giving than this bloke.
But when he comes to work, he comes to work to do his job. And his job is to drive fast, to win rallies, to drive even faster for even longer and to win titles. After he’s done that, you’re quite right, it’s another part of his job to tell the world how he did that.
Not everybody loves every part of their job.
And, anyway, what’s wrong with being an enigma? It hasn’t done Kimi Räikkönen any harm.
Michael Jordan, anybody?
Hardly the most loquacious of fellas, but undoubtedly among the very best of the best at what they do. And two of the most loved sports stars in the world.
Let’s not labor under the misapprehension that Ott Tänak needs to deliver to the camera. He doesn’t. He needs to deliver behind the wheel. It’s the job of the media to create, craft and convey the story – and when he doesn’t open the door, when he’s truculent at stage end, sure it’ll put a reporter’s nose out of joint, but it will add to the drama, the color and genuine depth of human emotion sometimes to be told in the tale.
I cut my teeth working with drivers like Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz. They were two of the most intimidating characters in our sport. And, at times, two of the most demanding interviewees you could ever take on.
Would they have kept their doors shut at the end of the stage? Certainly, if it suited them. But if they opened them, anything other than you’re A-game would be dispatched with the sort of response that would cast Tänak’s best efforts into the shade.
The current way of working with the media is suiting Tänak more and more. Pre-event functions are done by way of a zoom call, with journalists clearly increasingly hesitant to ask questions for fear of a) sharing their answers or b) being dismissed by Tänak. So, the moment there’s a pause in proceedings, he’s pushing and asking if anybody has any more questions?
Pause and you’re done. He’s gone.
And socially distanced, masked media zones are tricky. Without the physical closeness, the personal interaction, the eye contact (complicated by the shades), it’s harder to read the body language.
But it’s not impossible.
Tänak’s a private person, he’s not somebody who lets people in easily. And, let’s not forget who his mentor was: Markko Märtin. Distrusting of vast swathes of the media – and not without very good reason – Märtin was generally happy to keep journalists at an arm’s length. And a fairly long arm at that.
I’ve been fortunate to get on pretty well with both of them. But that’s not something that’s happened overnight. It’s about being there at every turn and being consistently straight with them. This job’s all about choices and chances. I’ve had the choice to make a headline with the odd story over the last couple of decades, but I was unwilling to chance that relationship.
I’m not some sort of apologist for Tänak’s apparent moodiness. All I’m saying is understand that everybody’s different.