Talk to a Finn the week before Rally Finland and you can hear it in their voice. It’s their time of the year. The weight of expectation sits heavy on their shoulders. You can hear it in their voice.
Less so for Estonia’s World Rally Champion a week out from Estonia’s first ever round of the World Rally Championship. Ott Tänak couldn’t sound more relaxed. Surely he’s noticed a ramping up of interest in local media.
There’s almost a hint of defiance. He’s seen time and again how the media burden can distract a driver. Not for him.
“I’m completely OK,” he said. “No media. No stress. No nothing.”
That only adds to the feeling of favour to have the Hyundai Motorsport star on the telephone.
We caught up in the week between South Estonia Rally and round four of this year’s WRC. What was Tänak’s reflection on his second home win aboard an i20 Coupe WRC (don’t forget he won the Viru Rally in July as well)?
Winning seven from eight stages in South Estonia was a solid indication that Hyundai has cured some of its fast rally ills, especially against the full force of Toyota. But Kalle Rovanperä won a stage and finished the rally 13.7s behind. Was that a bit close for comfort?
“It just was a test event,” said Tänak. “It’s hard to say. Let’s say, there was no fight for the points. Performance-wise, I think it’s probably not as straightforward as it might have looked.”
Was the Hyundai on its door-handles?
Tänak pauses, then delivers deadpan.
“If you think you’re going flat-out in this kind of event, you are still thinking about some other things, so I’m pretty sure nobody is fully on it. But in the end, it was still some kind of competition. Every stage was timed and you can find a good feeling and a good rhythm – but this weekend, for sure, the competition will be higher.”
Tänak has made much of the development of the i20 Coupe WRC on fast roads where it’s struggled since its inception in 2017. Even before that, the current car’s predecessors rarely covered themselves in glory in places like Finland. That the Korean flag has never flown above the podium in Jyväskylä is telling.
But it’s not a point Tänak’s dwelling on.
“The car has improved,” he said. “And generally I can say I feel already quite good in the car on these kind of roads. We are keen to see how far we have gone and what kind of performance we have. The guys have been working very hard. Let’s see.”
In his two years at Toyota, Tänak was the king of the fast rally. He won Finland two years in a row, but that was in a Yaris WRC designed and developed for roads like those.
Is this the week where Tänak will win for a third manufacturer at world level? Will his speed translate to the Hyundai; will Hyundai have the legs of the Toyota?
Toyota technical director Tom Fowler knows Tänak as well as anybody. He’s not discounting his former colleague for victory in Tartu.
Earlier in the summer Fowler put his thoughts into typical precise analysis.
“If [Tänak] has 97% of our car, he’s good enough to find that extra three percent. There’s no doubt, he will be quick there.”
Tänak’s not sure about that. 97% is a little low for him…
“We try to have 100%,” he said. “Or maybe we’ll have more than that…”
Retaining a world title is never a straightforward task, but Tänak’s job has been further complicated by two things: coronavirus and his monster Monte Carlo shunt. Crashing out of round one was never an ideal start to his title defence, but in a season which is likely to contain just seven rounds, dropping one score could hurt.
For Tänak, his task is entirely straightforward. If he wants to win again, he has to bridge the 24-point gap between himself and Sébastien Ogier. And he also has to leapfrog Elfyn Evans, Thierry Neuville and Rovanperä before he’s even the closest rival to the current leader.
“The target is very easy,” said Tänak. “We don’t know how long the season will be but, for sure, we have to take the maximum from every event now. It will be a short sprint so there is no way to hold back anymore.”
A no-holds barred Tänak will be a sight to behold. Especially in his own backyard. Not long to wait now.