From the moment his departure from Hyundai Motorsport was confirmed on that Sunday night in Salou, those in the know, knew. Or they thought they did.
It had to be M-Sport. Of course it did. Where else could Ott Tänak go next? But then came the silence. And the speculation. Maybe he was going back to Toyota. Maybe he would be spending the next year at home?
Ultimately, only a handful of folk in the world really knew what was going on. Fortunately, DirtFish was on the inside of this one and can offer insight into what this move means for the 2019 World Rally champion and the team – and family – he’s never lost contact with.
When did we first expect Tänak would be going back to M-Sport? The day after he announced his departure for Toyota back at the end of 2017.
By his own admission, he headed for a GR Yaris with M-Sport managing director Malcolm Wilson’s genuine blessing.
Talking to MW at the time, the emotions were high. But the future foretold.
“He’ll be back,” Wilson said five years ago.
And now we all know.
But what was it that tipped Tänak over the edge? Was it Hyundai’s shocking start to the year? Or perhaps the inability to replace Andrea Adamo in a timely fashion? Maybe that decision not to promote him to victory ahead of Thierry Neuville in Greece – a decision so strange in strategy it seemed to catch even Neuville out?
Tänak told DirtFish: “I wanted to be in a place where I have the full focus on doing everything in the team’s power or in our power to be able to fight for the championship. And that was definitely one reason why I was considering moving to M-Sport – and my target is obviously the drivers’ championship.
“I know what power M-Sport has, but also it seems like the Puma has been, once again, quite strong from the start – basically from the word go. It looks like it’s a base where you can build on and you could go forward.
“And there is also Ford behind who is very interested to still prove that they are capable of doing well in rallying, so I would say together with Ford and M-Sport I see there is a chance to build something great again together.”
Try as you might, you’re not going to get him to spill the full color on where the Hyundai gig went awry. He’s not that guy. Yes, in the heat of battle, he’s willing to shine a light on anybody he feels isn’t pulling their weight, but he’s made friends at Hyundai. Proper ones. And he’s not going to throw them under the bus.
“I can’t say anything bad about Hyundai,” he said. “There were many people I worked with who did a really great job to support me as much as possible so I can’t say anything negative about them. There are some great people who definitely [it] was difficult to leave. It was not easy either, but still, altogether, my target is to have a chance to challenge for the championship.”
It’s not hard to read between the lines here. In a matter of minutes, Tänak has talked of his desire to challenge for a championship. That’s the reason: his best chance to recreate that 2019 glory comes in a Puma.
Was there ever a consideration to head for Toyota or take a season out?
“Obviously,” he smiled, “that was the case for quite a long time after Japan. The paper was signed to leave Hyundai and I really had no other option, so I mean in the end in some way I was also quite lucky that M-Sport came up with the proposition which they had and we were able to agree.
“Basically yeah, more or less, I had no backups.
“The other backup was just drive my Avant tractor at home and do some snow ploughing.”
The tractor and snowplough will have to drive themselves now. Tänak’s time has come to return to the place where his career took off.
Introduced to Wilson by early season mentor and friend Markko Märtin, the speed and the potential were both obvious. The bent metal did, however, become an increasingly frustrating by-product.
At the end of 2012, Tänak was done with M-Sport and sent packing home to Estonia.
A year on the sidelines, running his own team, gave Ott the opportunity to ask himself the question of how much he really wanted this.
He wanted it.
So he knocked on Wilson’s door once more and found redemption in the shape of a 2014 program which blended WRC2 and a handful of World Rally Car outings. For the next two years, Tänak fluctuated between the main factory team and the DMACK squad. There was still the odd mistake here and there, but his blistering speed in places like Poland once again demonstrated just how fast and how brave he could be in a rally car.
The arrival of Sébastien Ogier in 2017 was the final piece of the jigsaw for Tänak. Confronted by the Frenchman’s genius and know-how up close, Ott learned and learned well. The breakthrough win came in Sardinia and was followed by a second similarly brilliant victory in Germany.
Tänak had arrived.
And suddenly it was time to go. Toyota was calling.
“I always had a good relationship with Malcolm,” said Tänak. “Everything that happened back in 2012 and so on, Malcolm never did anything wrong.
“Everything was always done with the best intention to make it work in the end, and all these lessons – and in the end for me they were good lessons and they were valuable lessons – worked. In some ways they were also very expensive lessons, especially for Malcolm I mean!
“Malcolm was also actually kind of the guy who advised me in the first place to go to Toyota back at the time. He told me to get the experience and to see the world, basically.
“He’s a very sporting guy and he understands the business very well so obviously he knows why I’m back, he knows what are my intentions and why I am coming back. I’m not coming for fun I’m coming for sport so he understands it very well.”
The dynamic will be fascinating for Tänak’s return. Early doors, the boot was very much on MW’s foot. And by his own admission there was the need for the odd butt-kicking from the boss.
“Oof,” Tänak laughed, “I’m not sure I really want to kick his arse – it might come back quite quickly. I guess the main target is to fight together and kick somebody else’s arse!”
In his prime, in the middle of 2019, Ott Tänak was a force to be reckoned with. Few tried and even fewer succeeded in containing that force.
He was winning rallies for fun and starting out on a road that would lead, surely, to more and more silverware.
Then Hyundai happened and everything changed. This year has demonstrated the speed – and more importantly that iron will – to dominate remains. But can he recreate that feeling, that sense of 2019?
“Yeah,” he said, “but this kind of feeling… it needs the package. Rallying is a team sport and it takes much more than just myself. There’s another guy sitting in the car, there are lots of people working around the car and in the office and so on, so it needs the full effort.
“We are definitely chasing it, this feeling.
“Probably we know what we need for that, so it’s just in the end if we can make it – but that is the target.
“Let’s say I’ve not been happy with the last couple of years. Finishing second this year definitely doesn’t make me happy, so I have some higher targets and I have not given up yet.
“The plan is to fight back.”
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