Ott Tanak’s Hyundai career may not have always yielded the results he was hoping for when he joined as reigning champion last year, but the Arctic Rally Finland – which joined the championship at short notice after Sweden was pulled due to Covid restrictions – was as close to perfect as it got.
“Finland is the home territory of Toyota, so to win here, on a brand new rally, feels very special,” he said, after claiming his second win in the i20 WRC. “We just went as fast as was safely possible.”
The Estonian led from start to finish, claiming five of the 10 stages to avenge his retirement on the season-opener in Monte-Carlo and get back into the championship fight.
Sebastien Ogier, who led the standings after the Monte, had a rally to forget in Finland, suffering from being first on the road on the opening day and acting as a snowplough for his rivals. He headed into Saturday, constituting the bulk of the action, on the back foot. Just as he was starting to climb back up the leaderboard, Ogier made an uncharacteristic mistake and got stuck in a snowbank on Saturday’s final stage: gallingly just a few hundred metres from the finish.
“The rally was done for us anyway, so I’m not too bothered,” he said, ending up 20th at the finish, with just one Power Stage point as consolation. “When you’re first on the road it’s always like this, so it’s only what we were expecting.”
The pre-event favourite was Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera, and there was a bit of pressure, because had he succeeded, the Finn could have become the youngest-ever winner of a World Championship rally.
In the end, Rovanpera missed out by just 17.5 seconds, but he won the Power Stage (to score five extra points) and moved into the drivers’ championship lead, with Toyota still heading the manufacturer standings.
Second overall was also the 20-year-old’s best-ever result, ahead of Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, who had closed to within two seconds of him on Saturday night. Their battle was the highlight of Sunday, with Neuville’s third place sealing second in the championship.
Rovanpera wasn’t the only young sensation at the Arctic Rally, as it also marked the debut World Rally Car outing for 19-year-old Oliver Solberg. Throwing a spanner into the works was a positive Covid test for his regular co-driver Aaron Johnston, which meant a last-minute switch to the experienced Seb Marshall.
Nonetheless it was a brilliant first time, with Solberg bringing his Hyundai home in seventh, having lost a place to Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta on the final stage. Ahead of the Japanese driver was his team mate Elfyn Evans in fifth and Craig Breen in fourth: making his first appearance for Hyundai this year and delivering everything that was asked of him. Another returning driver was Esapekka Lappi, who won WRC2 in a dominant performance with a Volkswagen Polo.
By contrast, spare a thought for his Finnish compatriot Janne Tuohino. On the fringes of the top 10, the privateer Ford Fiesta WRC driver was hoping to make Sunday count. Only to fall over in the sauna on Saturday night and dislocate his shoulder…