World Rally Championship

Why Tanak’s title hopes hinge on WRC’s summer of gravel

Three rallies into this year’s World Rally Championship and once again Ott Tanak finds himself with ground to make up on his title rivals. Tanak travels to next week’s Rally Portugal fourth in the WRC drivers’ standings.

The 2019 World Champion looked invincible on Arctic Rally Finland but the victory is currently bookended by tough outings in Monte-Carlo and Croatia.

Rally Portugal is the first in a series of gravel world rallies, a spell which Tanak needs to maximise if he is to claim his second world title this year.

One cannot deny it has been a troubling time for Tanak since his 2020 move to Hyundai. Two rally wins from 10 events is a considerable drop-off from his six wins from 13 with Toyota in 2019.

Still, barring mechanical issues, Tanak has remained on rally-winning pace and at times he’s shown glimpses of that untouchable speed.

Croatia was the first time there were no excuses. Tanak simply didn’t have the measure of team-mate Thierry Neuville when it came to eeking every second out of Hyundai’s i20 WRC on asphalt.

The Estonian was uncomfortable with the Hyundai’s balance on Rally Monte-Carlo as well. But it took Croatia to fully confirm all is not well with Hyundai and asphalt rallying.

“I like the Tarmac and I always enjoy it,” Tanak said at the end of Croatia’s final stage. “Even now on this stage, I drive, but it’s far away from my comfort zone and not nice at all.”

And Tanak is not alone. Craig Breen, Dani Sordo, Sebastien Loeb, Andreas Mikkelsen, Hayden Paddon… They’ve all struggled to perform on asphalt while piloting Hyundai World Rally Cars.

You wouldn’t exactly call them slouches on tarmac either. Here lies the problem for Tanak, there has been an underlying issue with Hyundai’s all-round asphalt problem for quite some time.

Yes, Neuville is on rails when it comes to asphalt world rallies, there is no doubting that. The car suits him but it comes at the cost of his team-mates’ performances.

With three asphalt rallies in the final five WRC rounds this year, Tanak cannot arrive at Ypres Rally Belgium in August still chasing Ogier, Neuville, and Evans. If he does, chances are his title hopes will be over for another year.

But here is where it gets more positive for Tanak. Of the next four rounds, Safari Rally Kenya is the only event Tanak hasn’t won before, and there are obvious reasons for that.

Remember Tanak’s rally-winning runs of 2018 and ‘19? Now is the time to repeat that exact form.

First up is Rally Portugal, an event win Tanak defends after his near start-to-finish victory in 2019.

Then it’s Rally Italy, scene of his maiden world rally victory back in 2017. Mechanical failures since then leave bitter memories of Sardinia. In 2019, power steering failure on the final stage cost him a signed, sealed, and delivered rally win.

WRC’s return to Safari rallying in Kenya is an unknown for everybody, there is really no point predicting that one. But then comes Rally Estonia and another strong shot of success for Tanak.

Portugal is the start of a busy period for the World Rally Championship. Four rallies in two months is stark contrast from the three we’ve had since January.

The back-to-back gravel events will have a big part to play in this year’s race to be crowned world champion. For the first time in Hyundai overalls, Tanak has a chance to string together a reel of world rally victories.

Sitting 21 points behind championship leader Ogier, now is the time for Tanak to prove he is the fastest rally driver in the world.

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Photos courtesy of Hyundai Motorsport

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