The World Rally Championship looked like it had witnessed a changing of guard in 2019 as Ott Tanak broke Sebastien Ogier’s six-year grasp on the title. Tanak’s partnership with Toyota’s fearsome Yaris had the potential to emulate the same post-millennial dominance as Loeb and Citroen or Ogier and Volkswagen.
Then he left.
Tanak will now partner his title rival, Thierry Neuville, in the re-energised Hyundai team while Ogier jumped at the chance to fill Tanak’s title-winning shoes at Toyota. The Estonian’s move to Hyundai has inadvertently given Ogier a chance to get his hands back on the world title.
There is an unquestionable gap between the WRC’s top trio of drivers and the rest of the pack. A gap that has been well established since the latest generation of World Rally Cars were introduced in 2017.
Ogier continued his WRC success in 2017 and 2018 after switching from Volkswagen to M-Sport, bringing the Cumbrian team some hard-earned success. In 2019 Tanak capitalised on Ogier’s swap to Citroen and won his first world championship. Meanwhile, Neuville finished runner-up on all three occasions. Will the WRC title ever come the Belgian’s way? 2020 could be his best opportunity yet. Neuville is the only driver in the top three to remain with the same team.
World rallying was left shocked when Tanak announced he was leaving Toyota. Looking at how dominant the Tanak-Toyota pairing was in 2019, it is no wonder the news sent shockwaves through the service park. His dominance deserves further appraisal upon realisation that the points scored by Neuville and Ogier last year would have beaten their rivals to the title in 2018.
While points of course mean prizes, there have been many sub-plots over the past three years that have realistically played a part in the final standings. Neuville’s early errors in 2017, Tanak’s Toyota woes in 2018 and Ogier’s below-par Citroen in 2019.
By taking the average performance of each manufacturer over the past three years and incorporating them with each driver’s points, a new outlook on the drivers’ performances can be gained.
The biggest difference in the graph is the redefined performance of Ogier in 2019. This is due to the consistent underachievement of Citroen’s C3 WRC between 2017 and 2019. Neuville’s ratings remain as steady as ever while Tanak’s ratings surged in his title-winning year.
Hyundai has scored the most manufacturer points over the past three seasons, steadily improving to finally take its first title in 2019. Has Neuville benefitted from a consistently performing Hyundai or has Hyundai benefitted from its retention of Neuville? There’s no way of knowing until Tanak launches his own i20 WRC off the start-line of Monte-Carlo’s opening stage.
By taking the performance of the drivers on each event from 2017-2019 and combining the performance of the cars they will be driving in 2020, a prediction of how the season could unfold can be made.
The graph envisages a seventh world title for Ogier in 2020. Of course this may not happen but it does provide some food for thought. There is nothing between Ogier and Tanak, and little more back to Neuville. Baring in mind Neuville’s prediction is negatively impacted by Hyundai’s strong results over the previous three years, which he was largely responsible for, it provides ample proof the championship could go the whole way to Japan.
However, if Ogier can maximise Toyota’s strength on events like Sweden and Finland, events which have passed him by in recent years, while maintaining his traditional early dominance of Monte-Carlo and Mexico, he could be a tough man to beat.
If Tanak can continue his 2019 form despite driving a different car, according to the 2020 prediction, a repeat of his 2019 tally of 263 points would be enough for him to retain his title. If it takes him a few rounds to settle into the new seat, Ogier could already have a healthy lead heading into the summer events.
Neuville enters 2020 with a point to prove. Over the past three seasons, he has repeatedly shown he is as capable a winner as his two championship rivals. He’s just missing that world title. Fresh seats for his rivals provide him with a great opportunity in 2020 to take that life-changing step from runner-up to world champion.
Ogier, Neuville, or Tanak? Time will tell but this 13-episode drama enters its fourth season with its trio of stars set for as fierce a rivalry as ever.
Words: Adam Hall
Photo: Jaanus Ree – Red Bull Media