A week ago it was April – just a couple of months on from Rally Sweden (speaking figuratively). You know, the winter rally that’s the second round of the World Rally Championship. The second round of the championship that’s still very much considered to be the start of the year.
And driver renewal stories are landing already.
Are we surprised at the news of Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak furthering their time with current employer Hyundai Motorsport?
Yes and no.
Actually, make that no and yes.
Neuville’s a Hyundai lifer; been there since the re-birth in 2014. He’s known and very well liked by the Koreans and the team in Alzenau. It was quite hard to see him going anywhere else.
Less so for Tänak, whose nomadic tendencies have only been outdone by world champion Sébastien Ogier. The Frenchman has moved between four teams in six years; Tänak’s only managed three in five.
I’ll be honest, I really thought Tänak would be heading back to M-Sport for next year. Christian Loriaux’s arrival in Alzenau clouded that judgement slightly.
But back to it being May, one month on from April.
Back in the day, back when the Finns really did still rule our world, stories like this would have been laughed out of town at this time of the year. Nothing happened, nothing really happened until the world descended on Jyväskylä. Rally Finland, the 1000 Lakes, that was when the talking started.
Talking to a handful of those closer than most to Tänak, it’s clear he was all about staying with Hyundai
And, if you were in the right bar at the right hour, the talking never stopped. As Karjala followed Karjala and the stairs to the downstairs toilet in the Brick (rebranded as the Old English Pub and no longer the hive of Sunday night activity it once was…) became increasingly complicated, that was when one summoned every ounce of focus, strained every memory cell to commit tittle-tattle to a part of the head hopelessly fogged by overly strong Suomi sauce.
No need anymore. Not now deals are being done before flights are even booked for Helsinki and north.
The timing for Tänak doesn’t really surprise me. Two years ago, right around this time, he told me he wanted a deal done quickly. At that point he was a year and a bit into life aboard a Toyota. Maybe it was because then team principal Tommi Mäkinen was working to his own career timeline. Tommi at the time? “It’s a bit early. Wait…”
You guessed it.
“… maybe around Finland time.”
And in the end, the wait for white smoke from the Puuppola chimney was pointless. The fire had already been lit on the outskirts of Frankfurt.
Talking to a handful of those closer than most to Tänak (probably something I should have done earlier….), it’s clear he was all about staying with Hyundai. Now was never really the right time for a change. And there’s an awful lot of sense in that with such significant regulation change coming in 2022.
Volkswagen Motorsport’s departure from the WRC at the end of 2016 brought an abrupt halt to the firm’s 2017 Polo R WRC and forced Ogier and co. to look elsewhere for employment. Talk to Sébastien, Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen now about the potential for Hanover’s 2017 offering and there’s a knowing look.
Put it this way, the German steamroller wasn’t about to run out of steam.
All three drivers were invested in a new car they’d been testing aspects of for the previous year. Out of nowhere, Ogier and Latvala found themselves learning a new way forward with M-Sport and Toyota respectively.
Finding your feet in a new team is never completely straightforward, but when you’re discovering a new team and a radically new car, it makes the job way more complex.
Pivotal for success next season is a good run-in through the second half of this season. And a good run-in equates to a stack of seat time in a Rally1 car, understanding how the hybrid generation of rally car works.
In terms of development time and getting comfortable with what’s coming, nailing their colors to a mast early is a smart move for Neuville and Tänak. Holding out and running to a more old-school timescale might have opened up more opportunities and offered a more enlightened view of what’s out there from M-Sport and Toyota – it might possibly have earned them both more cash – but an early deal is a solid banker.
Rather flippantly, I suggested to certain members of Tänak’s inner sanctum that it might be a gamble, putting all their eggs in Christian Loriaux’s basket.
The response was as immediate as it was telling.
“Not a bad basket.”
Hard to argue with that.
That the surprise has, perhaps, come with Tänak’s decision has skewed the content of this story in the direction of the Arctic Rally Finland winner. All of the above holds true for Neuville.
Yes, M-Sport and Ogier won the 2017 title – and at something of a September canter – but who was fastest out of the blocks? Neuville. He flew through Monte Carlo and Sweden and, arguably, should have won both.
Making the generation jump in familiar surroundings gave the Belgian a head-start in 2017. It’s likely to do the same for him and his team-mate five years and one homologation cycle later.