When Ott Tänak smiled a wry smile at the end of the second stage of Monte Carlo, breath must have been held momentarily in the Hyundai Motorsport command center.
The Estonian’s Hyundai i20 N Rally1 was still running on when the 2019 world champion lifted his right foot. He wasn’t pleased. Bringing the car to a halt just outside Bréziers, he stared straight ahead into the darkness on being told he’d just dropped another 17 seconds to leader Elfyn Evans.
“[The throttle problem] got really bad now,” he said. “To be honest, I’m very happy to be here… [that’s] all we can say.”
Then that moment, that split-second. Was he done? Was there more to come?
“Incredible what this thing is doing at the moment, let’s see.”
Two stages in and the stop line chatter had already started.
But from then on, nothing.
He got his head down and got on with it. Fourth on Saturday night, fourth on Super Sunday, fifth on the powerstage and fourth in the championship. He’s on his way to Sweden with the most points he’s had in the bank since 2019. That’s a start.
There was a stage win (admittedly, one he halved with team-mate Thierry Neuville last thing Saturday morning) and there were signs of pace. Most importantly, there were signs of patience.
What did he think?
“Definitely,” Tänak told DirtFish, “performance from the car is there. It’s actually quite easy to drive and I would say, for the first rally, not too bad from my point of view.
“Definitely the first part of the rally was a bit of a struggle and not many things went right. Altogether yesterday (Saturday) was a bit better and today (Sunday). For the last stage, I would say I was not in the good set-up window for this [all-dry] Tarmac stage, so I couldn’t try well there. Otherwise it was OK.”
After Thursday night, ‘OK’ was more than alright for the team.
Some might point to the 40-odd seconds spent in a snowbank on Friday morning as another reason for a podium no-show. Tänak can see that perspective.
He admitted: “I screwed it up myself on the first days. We basically lost any chances to compete with someone and after that, we had to finish.”
Had to finish is right.
For three of the previous four years, he’d no-scored in the Alps. For a man with a serious desire for a second world title, that wasn’t something he could risk.
Arguably the best news for Tänak was the feeling for the future.
“For myself,” he said, “I still need to make it work – but at least I see it’s not too far away. It’s more things we need to prepare better for [the next Tarmac event in] Croatia and for sure it was a good experience this weekend to do the mileage and understand the car.
“The car is definitely competitive. We will still have quite a few topics to discuss where I’d like to believe we can still improve quite a bit, but altogether I guess already, as a base, the job they’ve done last year is good. The car has been fine-tuned and it’s in a good window.”
The job Tänak has now is to clean that window to make it more useable, to make the car faster and faster. Being in the set-up ballpark is great, but those final details and percentages are where the stage wins, rally wins and championship wins come from.
He knows that. “If you are in a better window and more confident, you can start pushing a bit as well.”
In the last eight years, Tänak and co-driver Martin Järveoja have started the season in a different car to the one they finished the previous year in. On an event where a driver yearns for consistency of set-up and feeling in sometimes the most inconsistent of conditions, it’s tough starting another Monte in a new motor.
And then you go to Sweden and another entirely specific event which demands a very defined car to go quickly.
“That’s always the tricky part,” he said. “If you change teams every year then you always go to the rally with everything all-new and don’t have any background from the previous year, so it always makes life a bit more difficult.”
Perhaps we’re not going to see the best of the revived Tänak-Hyundai partnership until the more predictable gravel rallies towards the middle of the season. Perhaps. But this is also Ott Tänak we’re talking about. He wasn’t overly well acquainted with Ford’s Puma when he won in Umeå last time out.
With Tänak, everything is possible.
It was always going to be interesting to see where he was at after a troubled season with M-Sport through 2023. On the early evidence of 2024, he’s in a good place.