…including themselves. This was the first rally for Tänak with the Puma in gravel specification. They went into the rally without any real idea of how their pace would be. It turned out that their pace was pretty good. They weren’t the fastest but they were good enough for Tänak to use his ability and experience to craft out an unlikely and very welcomed win. After a grim year in 2022, Malcolm Wilson had cause to smile again – as did everyone else in the team. Loubet had a good rally as well. He did what was expected of him. He drove at a decent pace, avoided major dramas, achieved a decent result, and gained valuable experience.
Hyundai Couldn’t Convert
Hyundai had the fastest car in Sweden but they couldn’t convert that into a win. Still, a good result with a resurgent Breen in second and a slightly unfortunate Neuville (with pre-rally illness, an unfavourable starting position, and a mistake on the power stage) in third. New team boss Cyril Abiteboul gained attention with an unsuccessful attempt trying to swap the positions of Breen and Neuville. It was the right call with the drivers’ championship in mind but it didn’t work out due to Neuville’s mistake on the power stage. Lappi was also on excellent pace and on course for a podium finish. That’s until his tyre delaminated, he went off, and got stuck for 7 minutes, ruining his rally. Bad luck – he deserved much better.
Toyota On Disappointing Pace
Toyota were expected to win this rally quite comfortably but it didn’t work out that way at all. Technical Director Tom Fowler was adamant in refuting any talk of poor pace but that’’s really what it was. Neuville beat Rovanperä fair and square because he was faster, which was surprising. You wouldn’t have seen that in 2022 in a rally like this. Before the rally, there was talk of this being a “litmus test” for Evans. He was on top pace in Monte before his puncture. Would he be on top pace again, meaning that he had overcome his issues with adapting to the Rally1 car? The answer is “no”. He was never on top pace in Sweden and struggled throughout. Katsuta showed good speed before going off and damaging his car. No joy in terms of a good result, though, obviously.
Toyota was clearly the car to have in this rally. They won 16/18 stages, took a 1-2 and got 4 of the top 6 places. Can’t do much better than that.
Ogier was sublime and always in control. Rovanperä showed incredible speed at times (esp. SS14 that was run in darkness). Evans showed such excellent pace on Friday that David Evans proclaimed on Dirtfish’s new Live Center that it looked liked he was back at the top where he belonged. His performance seemed to fade a bit after he got a puncture on SS5, though. It soured the mood, perhaps. Katsuta was pretty consistent but didn’t show anything special.
Hyundai Off With Setup
Neuville was expected to fight for the win here given his past performances. He was never close to troubling Ogier though and could barely mount a challenge against Rovanperä. He didn’t think it was an issue with the i20N’s pace but rather with setup which wasn’t optimal for the conditions. It seems the teams were not expecting this year’s Monte to basically be a dry tarmac rally. Lappi and especially Sordo struggled even more. Lappi was faster on Saturday but couldn’t find the sweet spot on other days. Sordo was simply off the pace and miserable the whole time.
Decent Start for M-Sport
It might be tempting to say that M-Sport had a terrible rally with two crashes from Loubet and niggling problems – gear change on Friday, power steering on Saturday – for Tänak. Neither of them were ever on podium pace either. We shouldn’t forget however that the Puma is completely new to Tänak. He didn’t have a decent base setup to start the rally. He got some points on the board – which he hasn’t managed in the previous three Montes – and some idea for the direction of future development. Loubet is inexperienced in the Monte and manifested that with two offs which the Boss won’t like. He did show decent speed on some stages though so it wasn’t all bad.
About a month ago on December 16th, Betsafe Estonia published a one-hour interview with the 2019 World Rally Champion Ott Tänak conducted by Kalev Kruus, a well-known Estonian sports journalist and TV presenter. I’m happy to provide an English translation of their Estonian conversation as I think it could be interesting to many non-Estonian rally fans as well and I don’t think a translation has been published. This interview was made soon after Tänak had signed for M-Sport.
Kruus [0:40]: Hello again! We continue with Betsafe’s sports podcasts with our 3rd broadcast of the year. It has become a happy tradition for us in recent years that either at the beginning or at the end of the year we get to interview the biggest name in Estonian sports, Ott Tänak, hello!
Tänak [0:59]: Hello.
(They start with “how do you dos”, talking a bit about the power cuts that Tänak’s home island of Saaremaa experienced in December because of winter storms and massive snowfall. I’ll leave that out as it’s not related to rallying.)
Kruus [1:56]: You wanted a break. You said you won’t be thinking about rallying anymore this year. Is that the kind of vacation that suits you?
Tänak [2:03]: Yes, that suits me well.
Kruus [2:05]: What suits the Estonian rally and sports community well is you continuing with your career. We won’t go through every rally of last season in detail. That would take too much time. But let’s go through them anyway before we get to everything related to M-Sport. When we spoke a year ago – that was three weeks before the season started – your team didn’t have a team boss and we talked off-air about you being a bit like a flying circus, not knowing how and with what you would start the season. Finally, you went to Monte and got what you got. When you think about the beginning of the season – did it go how it inevitably had to go?
Tänak [2:47]: I guess it went exactly according to how prepared we were. There was certainly plenty of stress for everyone in the team and not having a team boss made things more complicated. The car was also born with complications so everything was quite difficult.
Kruus [3:11]: In a way, I guess the car remained difficult for you until the end of the season? Why do you think it was your car that had problems with the hybrid system throughout the season? You were mentioning that often. The other Hyundai drivers didn’t mention it much. Why was it a problem for you that couldn’t be solved?
Tänak [3:28]: Difficult to say. I raised the issue myself as well but it seemed to be a different problem every time. Usually, the problems were not solvable by Hyundai. They were beyond our control and we couldn’t do much to avoid them.
Kruus [3:58]: Did you keep track of how many rallies were there where you didn’t have these problems on any of the days?
Tänak [4:02]: I’m not really into statistics. I haven’t looked into it.
Kruus [4:04]: Can you remember a rally where you didn’t have any of these problems, though?
Tänak [4:07]: I think there definitely were such rallies but I haven’t kept track of that.
Kruus [4:13]: Did you ever find out why it was only you that had these problems?
Tänak [4:16]: Well, since they seemed to be random problems without a specific cause, I guess they were just technical issues that sometimes happen. Why was it specifically us that had them, I don’t know.
Kruus [4:32]: Now that the first season with hybrids is over, would you say that it was the right thing to do to make this transition? Should Rally1 cars have a hybrid system?
Tänak [4:44]: From our perspective, I wouldn’t say that the cars must have them. If they make the sport more interesting, however, then let them be. In any case, I would say that the cars have been able to adopt the hybrid system quite well. The cars are drivable. It seems the added weight has been put to work and the cars haven’t got much slower than they were last year [i.e. 2021].
Kruus [5:14]: But not much faster either?
Tänak [5:17]: No, no. The cars of the previous regulation were awesome to drive. They were really great from a driver’s perspective. With the cars we have now, the advances we’ve made in safety are certainly good. That was tested a few times this year as well and it worked very well.
Kruus [5:44]: Do you think the cars of the current regulation will get to be as awesome in the coming years as the previous cars were?
Tänak [5:54]: That’s difficult to achieve because of physics. Weight makes a big difference in sports — equally in Formula One, Moto GP, or rallying. Weight is all-important and if there is a lot of weight, it’s difficult to manage the inertia.
Kruus [6:12]: There was more weight and there was also a lack of knowledge about what the weight would do to tyres, etc. There were those who couldn’t make the Pirellis work for them. Others managed it better. How would you say Pirelli managed to handle this new situation?
Tänak [6:33]: I guess they didn’t develop the tyres that much. I think there was a new tarmac tyre. We retired from Monte because of tyres for the second year in a row. The situation has been a little unpleasant but on the other hand, they were more-or-less OK on gravel. Tarmac is problematic for them.
Kruus [7:00]: Now you’re going to Monte after only a few days’ testing. Will you even be able to try out all the different tyres with the new car, which I guess would be necessary to do?
Tänak [7:19]: It’s always a lottery at the Monte. Testing or no testing, you never know what conditions you’ll get. You never know whether the information that you have gathered in testing will actually be useful. Because of that, and because testing is so limited now, I’m not sure that it’s actually worth it to spend many days testing for the Monte, which is really a rally that you just have to endure and survive.
Kruus [7:49]: Let’s remind ourselves of the testing regulations. It was 30 days last year for 3 cars, right?
Tänak [7:53]: It was 1 day per driver per rally last year but only for the European rounds of the championship.
Kruus [8:00]: This year it’s 14 days for 2 cars?
Tänak [8:04]: I haven’t fully figured it out myself yet. Yes, it’s 21 days for 3 cars and 14 days for 2 cars. [Ott was actually wrong about this. The regulation for 2023 is that each WRC Manufacturer (incl. M-Sport) gets a flat 21 days for pre-event testing, and it’s up to them to decide how they use that.]
Kruus [8:10]: So you could really do with a 3rd driver in the team?
Tänak [8:14]: I guess it doesn’t make a difference. Or, depending on who tests for how many days… I guess you could have a 3rd driver who doesn’t test. [Consequently from the previous, this is also wrong. M-Sport’s tactic is to have only two drivers so that both of them get a bigger share of the team’s allocation of 21 days for PET than a driver in a three-car team would.]
Kruus [8:24]: Let’s go back to last season. It seemed that Kalle Rovanperä secured the title already at the beginning of the season. Suddenly, you started to get results as well. What happened? You had one win already but then you had a disaster of a rally in Kenya. What happened after Kenya? Just to remind us, Toyota got a 1-2-3-4 in Kenya. What happens in the mind of an athlete, especially an athlete like you, when your rivals get such a result?
Tänak [8:56]: It was difficult for us from the start, really. The crisis around the world… The supply of materials and spare parts was difficult. At the time of Kenya and Estonia, we got to a situation where we just didn’t have some spare parts anymore. Testing was very limited. From then on, however, we started to act in a more decisive way and things improved. I guess we had to hit the bottom to make that happen.
Kruus [9:34]: You didn’t have spare parts in Kenya and Estonia? In Kenya, your gear lever detached from the car. You managed to fix it on the go. Still, a curious thing to happen.
Tänak [9:45]: Yes, a curious thing. That’s the sort of thing that can happen in the first year with a new car. (Smiling) I’ve been blessed in my career with the opportunity to discover faults in new cars.
Kruus [9:59]: Still, when the gear lever detached, so many misfortunes had already happened. The gear lever seemed to be the icing on the cake. What was going through your mind when it happened? “What’s this thing I’m driving?”
Tänak [10:15]: (Smiling) I was driving whatever was left of the car. Luckily it was in the Safari Rally where a few seconds here and there don’t make a real difference.
Kruus [10:30]: But the problem itself?
Tänak [10:32]: (Smiling) Yeah, that was fun.
Kruus [10:34]: There were obviously more problems like that, many of which the public don’t know about. Was it really caused by the team not having a proper boss, as at least it seemed to us outsiders? Julien Moncet was a deputy team leader and he remained a deputy until the end. Did you see that as being the cause of the problems, the start of the rupture?
Tänak [10:55]: Not really a rupture. It was difficult for Julien, personally, as well. He was appointed the deputy team manager and he didn’t have all the rights that a team manager usually has. The structure of the team caused problems. With all the other things as well, the new regulations, the car being born late… It was all very last-minute. Basically, we homologated the car without trying it on gravel at all, and without any development testing. When the car was first turned on at the workshop – I guess that was on December 1st or 2nd 2021 – we thought that we would go testing. I managed to drive one day on snow and the next day, Thierry drove it off a cliff into the bottom of a river, and that was that. That chassis was finished and we really didn’t get to do any development before homologation. So we had to find some development direction during the season. The basic car that Christian Loriaux created was actually OK but there was a lot to discover about the car and we had many small problems. Reliability was a problem. As the season progressed, I guess we managed to become more competitive really because the car became more reliable.
Kruus [12:18]: Many people – Tom Fowler among them – were surprised that you seemingly managed to jump one step. You started with a car that couldn’t finish a rally. The next logical step would have been just finishing rallies but you managed to jump over that and started winning. How did you manage to do that?
Tänak [12:44]: All our efforts were basically focused on making the car reliable. We found out that when we made the car reliable, we could be competitive as well. In the first rallies of the season, I don’t think there was actually a single special stage where all the components of the car worked as they were designed to do. When we got all the components to work, the car was fast.
Kruus [13:20]: Still, in your comments, also in the rallies where you did well, you didn’t have many positive things to say about the car. It was always uncomfortable for you. At the end of the Laukaa stage in Rally Finland where the average speed was a little over 132 km/h, you said that your hands were shaking because it was so uncomfortable. Obviously, a driver’s hands would shake after a stage that was so fast but not necessarily your hands. What was so uncomfortable about it?
Tänak [13:51]: There were things that surprised me. Driving a rally car is difficult when you get things that you’re not expecting and we were getting surprises in places where I didn’t think I was on the limit. At that speed, that’s uncomfortable. It shouldn’t be like that. In the end, that’s what happens when you haven’t done much development testing. It was our first time in Finland with that car and we found out many things that needed to be worked on.
Kruus [14:35]: What kind of things were they, in layman’s terms?
Tänak [14:39]: It was aerodynamics.
Kruus [14:40]: Aerodynamics made driving uncomfortable and difficult for you?
Tänak [14:44]: Yes. The car started to do weird things at high speeds.
Kruus [14:48]: You have 17 wins in WRC rallies. After Kalle had won in Estonia with you being 3rd, you went to Finland and won. You made the gap in the first day where your starting position was slightly better and held it until the end. I think that’s the finest sports moment of the year for anyone [in Estonia] who watches sports. Was it the sweetest victory for you as well?
Tänak [15:23]: I think it was one of the most substantial wins, yes. One of the biggest pushes. I didn’t really believe it myself that I could keep it on the road until the end. Somehow, we made it through. The main issue wasn’t really that Kalle won and we were third in Estonia. It was that they won by 3 minutes, which for a rally like that… even Greece isn’t won by 3 minutes nowadays. Considering what a fast rally Estonia is, their win could have been measured with a calendar. I felt like I was driving an R5 car against them. Going into Finland, the only advantage that we had…
Kruus [16:00]: So tell me about that. What made the difference? We had Rally Estonia. Quite a fast rally with an average speed of 107-108 km/h. Then two weeks passed. Rally Finland is even faster. What happened to you in those two weeks?
Tänak [16:14]: One thing was that the weather was complicated in Rally Estonia. Throughout the year, when it got wet, we had things on the car that just didn’t work.
Kruus [16:27]: Small things?
Tänak [16:28]: Well, yes, small things that became big issues. When the grip was good and consistent, they didn’t bother me much. When the grip got inconsistent, though, it became very complicated. The main thing in those two weeks, though, was that we managed to find some weak points in Estonia and make a step forward with them for Finland. I think Toyota, reversely, took their foot off the gas a little after winning Rally Estonia by 3 minutes, thinking they had Rally Finland already in the bag as well.
Kruus [17:02]: I went to Jyväskyla between the two rallies myself for the opening ceremony of their new factory and I have to say I got the same impression there. It seemed the table had already been set for the victory dinner. And it was the second time this happened. When you won the Arctic Rally Finland in 2021, it was the same. So you have spoiled the party twice for them. On Rally Estonia, though, Kalle Rovanperä spoiled the party for us. If you would put Kalle’s power stage performance into layman’s terms, how did he do that? The weather didn’t seem to get significantly more favourable for him. He beat you by 40 seconds and he beat Evans who was 2nd by 22 seconds. How did he do that?
Tänak [17:48]: When you’re feeling confident… I think the conditions were actually better for him. Breen and the others who started first to the stage lost by over a minute to Kalle. The conditions got better for every following car. I don’t know really how much advantage he had. For our part, we had our own problems on that stage. We had only three wheels braking. I was just trying to survive and get to the finish. I’m not really stressed about that one stage.
Kruus [18:18]: So really, they were technical issues that caused the 3 minute gap in the final results? It wasn’t like the car was just bad?
Tänak [18:30]: A number of issues, yes.
Kruus [18:34]: But in Finland, there were no technical issues?
Tänak [18:40]: I don’t remember it being problem-free but yes, on the whole it was OK.
Kruus [18:45]: After Finland, people started to talk about there maybe being a chance to fight for the title after all. Then came Belgium where Thierry Neuville did something I couldn’t understand. Leading the rally by 16 seconds, he drove onto a corn field. I think you hadn’t started to push yet by then?
Tänak [19:08]: It was basically a done deal for Thierry. We had some gearbox trouble in the previous loop. We had fought for the lead until then but after the trouble it was clear that the only fight was between Elfyn and myself for 2nd place.
Kruus [19:28]: How did Neuville behave after the rally, after losing it like that?
Tänak [19:35]: Theirry was fine. He’s always a positively minded person.
Kruus [19:40]: Undoubtedly he is. Not so positive, though, as to do you a favour and give you the win in Greece when you still had a bit of a chance for the title. Until it’s mathematically impossible, there’s always a chance. Seeing Kalle being a little shaky for a few rallies, or at least not quite as bullet-proof as he was at the beginning of the season, in Greece you were heading for a 1-2-3, a superb result, and it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference what order you achieved that in. It didn’t matter who was 2nd and who was 3rd but it would have been important for you to win the rally to keep your title hopes alive. They didn’t give it to you. Why?
Tänak [20:29]: Let’s say that it would have been a little foolish and a little complicated for us to ask that directly from Thierry who hadn’t won a rally for about a year by then I guess. So for him and for the team it was important for Thierry to win the rally. At the same time, it was the deciding moment in the title contest and our actions inevitably sent a message to Kalle and Toyota. Had we switched places, we would have sent the message that we’re still trying and we intend to make it as difficult as possible for him. As it happened, the team sent a message to both Kalle and myself that we weren’t trying anymore.
Kruus [21:26]: Lifted your hands in surrender?
Tänak [21:27]: Yes, the team raised my hands for me.
Kruus [21:29]: You went on the attack still on the Sunday morning in Greece and you were ready still to fight after the first stage. The fight was on. What happened then?
Tänak [21:38]: We were at the start of the second stage of the morning when Martin [Järveoja] showed me his phone. The President had sent him a message, saying we should stop pushing.
Kruus [21:46]: So that was Sean Kim who had been chosen in April, I think. With him becoming the President of Hyundai Motorsport, were you hoping that things would improve in the WRC team?
Tänak [22:03]: He’s actually a good guy. He’s interested in motorsports. He has an engineering background. He actually worked in the team that designed Hyundai’s first ever WRC car. So he knows about stuff. The only complication was that he was thrown in at the deep end in a way, into an unfamiliar environment and he’s had to get to know the story of the current WRC team in a short time. At that time in Greece, it was difficult for him to come to a decision. He had been involved in the WRC only for 3-4 months by this point. I guess he felt he was still a stranger in our environment and he didn’t have the confidence to make a decision.
Kruus [22:45]: Let’s get back to that text message, though. What was going through your head in the moment you saw it? What was your first word? A swear word?
Tänak [22:51]: It wasn’t a swear word. No point in swearing. The season had been difficult enough already and swearing wouldn’t have improved that.
Kruus [22:58]: If the roles had been the other way around and Thierry would have needed a win for the championship, would you have gone to him and said, “We’re a team. Go take the win and get the title from Kalle.” Would you have done that?
Tänak [23:17]: These things are always difficult to know for sure but if that’s the situation… I’ve done that before in my career.
Kruus [23:23]: When?
Tänak [23:25]: When I was still driving with Ogier.
Kruus [23:31]: So the year when Ogier won the championship with M-Sport [i.e. in 2017] you were still in a supporting role for him?
Tänak [23:40]: At that time for sure, yes. I was the guy doing the dirty work for the team.
Kruus [23:45]: Maybe we can talk more about this now that you’ve left Hyundai… Did you hope, think, or were certain when you went to Hyundai that you were going to be more of a #1 driver in the team than it actually turned out?
Tänak [24:02]: I never wanted to be the #1 in the team. Rather, my interest was getting the team to work for me but also to get them to do the right things. The same in Toyota. I can’t really say that I got a lot of support from the team or from my teammates in 2019. Kris Meeke and Jari-Matti Latvala — they never did anything to get me an extra point or two. In Hyundai, it happened to get complicated immediately with the Covid pandemic starting. For the first year, I didn’t really see members of the team much. In the second year, we weren’t slow but we retired very often for different reasons. And the third year has been as we discussed. It has been a very complicated 3 years.
Kruus [25:06]: Did you make the decision to renege on an existing contract with Hyundai at the time of that text message in Greece? Did you think, ‘Damn it, I can’t work with this team.’? For outsiders it seemed…
Tänak [25:24]: (Interrupting) No, it definitely wasn’t a spontaneous decision based on the emotion of a moment. All decisions are emotional in the end – drivers are hired and fired, people go somewhere and do something – it’s all based on our emotions, and on what we think and want to do but this decision was based on the sum of many things.
Kruus [25:48]: But still, the last straw… was that in Greece?
Tänak [25:53]: I actually can’t remember what happened after that. I suppose it confirmed my feelings about it, yes.
Kruus [26:03]: Who did you discuss that with? It was a big decision, an existing contract… to end it. Who advised you? Or do you make all the decisions just by yourself?
Tänak [26:16]: Throughout my career, Markko [Märtin] has been handling such things. This one though was entirely my own decision based on my own considerations.
Kruus [26:32]: When you told Markko about it, what did he say?
Tänak [26:35]: I’m not sure. He had always been in two minds about this. I stuck to my decision though.
Kruus [26:43]: So what was actually the biggest reason for this? Why did you decide as you did?
Tänak [26:56]: Because I could see that it would be difficult to put a package together at Hyundai with which I could fight for the drivers’ title.
Kruus [27:09]: When you look at the second half of the season, after Kenya, there were 7 rallies. You were on the podium four times with two wins. Also a 4th position. In the same time, Kalle Rovanperä also had two wins but these were his only podium finishes, and he didn’t score in three rallies. So when we take only the second half of the season that was quite different from the first half, we saw that you did better than Kalle. Maybe, after all, go for one more season with Hyundai, now that they had made the car reliable, and you could have won the title with them?
Tänak [27:51]: (Smiling) A lot of great things can happen in life, maybe. The decision hasn’t come easily but in the end, the situation in that team was too complicated for me, and I couldn’t get a clear assurance about what would be happening next year. In the end, as I said, these decision are always based on emotions as well, and in all sports, when an athlete wants to achieve great things, (s)he has to feel comfortable in the team that (s)he is with. Me – I can’t say that I was so comfortable in the team that I really wanted to go to the last few rallies of the season. It felt more like a chore and you can’t do the job well when you’re feeling like that.
Kruus [28:45]: Would you still be willing to be in the same team with Thierry Neuville in the future, if such a chance came?
Tänak [28:52]: Yes, sure. I have nothing against him. Sport is sport and if you want to win, you have to be better than everyone else.
Kruus [28:59]: You’ve remained a sportsman through and through. When you gave up that contract, I’m sure you gave up a lot of money as well. When the news came out in Catalunya, did you really have nothing, no other contract in your back pocket?
Tänak [29:25]: No, I didn’t have anything.
Kruus [29:27]: Nothing at all? You hadn’t even implied anything to Malcolm [Wilson], asking if he was ready to take you on?
Tänak [29:35]: Yes, Malcolm didn’t know to expect that news. Discussions of that nature have to be kept secret by the people involved.
Kruus [29:50]: How many days or how many hours did it take for you two to make contact?
Tänak [29:58]: We had obviously talked about driving for M-Sport with Malcolm before.
Kruus [30:04]: Did he encourage you to make that decision?
Tänak [30:06]: It doesn’t matter if it was last year or this year, Malcolm has always been interested in me driving for them. They had a difficult season as well and yes, he wanted to make this happen very much.
Kruus [30:25]: So I assume it was he who made the call, not you?
Tänak [30:37]: Yes, that’s right.
Kruus [30:40]: What happened next? How did events develop?
Tänak [30:46]: Nothing really happened at first. We still had Rally Japan to do. We started to inquire about what’s possible, what their capabilities are, and on what level they were planning to do things in the future. So it went. Some time after returning from Japan, I went to visit them and drove the car.
Kruus [31:12]: Did you know immediately that it was a great car?
Tänak [31:16]: Yes. Obviously we have work to do. We developed a lot with the Hyundai during a year and so one Rally1 car is familiar to me at least, no matter how good it was in the end. The Puma is unfamiliar to me now, starting with all the buttons and ending with the behaviour of the car on a stage, peculiarities of setup… There is a lot to discover. But the people at M-Sport are very motivated and they want to prove something. It’s a small team but they’re all very enthusiastic about what they’re doing.
Kruus [31:53]: So now you’re the clear #1 at M-Sport. You’re the guy for whom everyone is working.
Tänak [32:03]: Yes… Well, the team worked for me at Toyota as well so I do have experience of the team working hard for me and I believe great things are possible at M-Sport as well. We put ourselves in a difficult situation by going into the season without me driving the car in all conditions. The other title contenders are familiar with their cars. They have experience and knowledge of setups. We made our life more difficult but I believe the team at M-Sport will carry us through.
Kruus [32:52]: Would you still have made this decision if Loeb hadn’t shown in the previous season that this was a winning car? Of course I know that you can tell a good car from a bad car by yourself. Whenever Loeb drove the Puma, though, he led the rally. Would you still have made the decision without seeing him do that?
Tänak [33:14]: It’s difficult to say. Again, decisions are based on emotions. When someone proves that the car does have something going for it, that counts. Sure, there were rallies where they were a little off the pace. And there were rallies where they were stronger. Our job now is to put the whole picture together so that we’re quick everywhere.
Kruus [33:43]: So I guess they struggled more on faster rallies? The kind of rallies that actually suit you the best?
Tänak [33:53]: Yes but before I went to Hyundai, they also had not even been on the podium in Finland, or anywhere like that. We managed to make the Hyundai a quick car. Maybe we can do the same with the Puma.
Kruus [34:04]: Why did the decision to join M-Sport take so long? I guess you didn’t have other options in the end. Why did it take so long to publish the new contract?
Tänak [34:16]: We published it about two hours after signing the contract, I think.
Kruus [34:20]: So why did it take so long to sign the contract?
Tänak [34:24]: (Smiling) The paperwork is a nuisance and different ideas and agreements had to be squared with each other, so that the final agreement would be strong enough for us next year.
Kruus [34:43]: I haven’t noticed it stated how long this paperwork is valid for. How many years is the contract for?
Tänak [34:51]: It’s for one year for now.
Kruus [34:53]: Just one year? And what do you have to achieve in this one year?
Tänak [34:57]: The title.
Kruus [35:00]: And if you don’t win the title in the first year with the Puma?
Tänak [35:05]: Then we’ll see what we do next.
Kruus [35:08]: Really…?
Tänak [35:10]: I believe we can do it. We could have done it in our first year at Toyota as well [i.e. 2018]. There were some weaknesses that finally left us out of the game but everything is possible, I think. We just have to do a good job ourselves.
Kruus [35:25]: I can see that you’re very motivated. You still have the fire for rallying and you’ve said it yourself that it bothers you that you didn’t manage to win the title at Hyundai. Maybe you are more motivated than at the beginning of last season? Or is that wrong?
Tänak [35:47]: Maybe it’s actually a little more motivating to be in a weaker position than the other title contenders. At the same time, I can see that we can turn it around if we work well enough. I know that’s difficult to achieve in real life. All the teams and drivers are the best of the best. Everyone knows what they’re doing but I still think that we have our chances.
Kruus [36:14]: One thing that I’ve noticed while browsing different rally forums is that M-Sport seem to have a lot of staff turnover. Is that just a false impression based on their job adverts or is that actually true? How many people are still there who were there in 2017?
Tänak [36:39]: It’s not really about turnover. It’s more that Covid left a big mark on M-Sport. When the crisis started, they were forced to let a lot of people go to keep the company afloat. Now they’re hiring to replace these people in order to bring the team back to the same level that it was on before Covid. The most important people are still the same, though.
Kruus [37:15]: So you saw many familiar faces of people who know how to work with you?
Tänak [37:21]: The most important people are still the same, yes. From the main mechanics to engineers and designers, they’re the same people.
Kruus [37:28]: How will you compensate the deficit that you say you have compared to the others, going into the season in a familiar team but an unfamiliar car? The season will start soon. If you want to be World Champion, you will have to start winning immediately.
Tänak [37:49]: Yes. We are working on preparing well with the engineers so that we are able to use our test days efficiently. We’re working on finding the good base setup that would let us start rallies on a good pace. Really, you couldn’t say that the car was poor. On most rallies last year, they were able to set some good stage times at least. That they couldn’t convert that into good results was not necessarily the car’s fault.
Kruus [38:24]: I’d also say that it was more down to the drivers. No reason to hide that. A one-year contract. If you win the title in 2023, is your career then over?
Tänak [38:40]: Everything is possible. It depends on what the feeling is then, and what the circumstances are.
Kruus [38:48]: How close were you actually to calling it quits after last season? Was that really one of the options?
Tänak [38:57]: Well, it was 50/60. [That’s a nod to a comment made by the famous Finnish ski jumper Matti Nykänen a long time ago. It’s common in Estonia to say that jokingly. It means 50/50.] It was certainly on the table for as long as I didn’t have a contract. There were two drives available but one of these wasn’t really an option because I wasn’t ready to do only half a season. I don’t want to do this as a hobby. I want to do it on a professional level and that was only possible at M-Sport.
Kruus [39:24]: So who will be joining you in the team, under the tent? We know that M-Sport don’t have a fancy motorhome.
Tänak [39:36]: Yes, the focus is on the rally cars and being fast on the stages.
Kruus [39:42]: Which drivers are joining you, though? Loeb has been talked about a lot. How many rallies is he doing?
Tänak [39:47]: I don’t know. I’m not up to speed on those issues.
Kruus [39:50]: What will happen to the RedGrey team now that you’ve parted ways with Hyundai?
Tänak [40:00]: No bad feelings. We still have the cars. We’ll go on as before, trying to find new avenues and develop the team. Personally, I plan to be involved more and more with that team as well, helping to develop it. I’ve always been interested in the technical side of things and when the time comes to hang up the helmet, that’s where I’ll be, trying to help the next drivers from Estonia.
Kruus [40:55]: Let’s discuss the next drivers. One of them won the Junior World Championship last season, which you actually never managed to do. We’re talking about Robert Virves. How close are you two professionally now? Has something changed in that regard compared to last season? Now you’re also at M-Sport, close to Malcolm. What will happen with him?
Tänak [41:20]: Right now he’s due to get the four free rallies that he won himself. I’m sure it will be an important year for his career. It’s not that he has four free rallies to just drive through. He’s going to have to make an impression as well, to show what he’s got.
Kruus [41:47]: The more he drives, the better it is, as you know yourself. How many rallies is he going to do in addition to these four free ones?
Tänak [41:54]: That depends on what budget he can put together. After the four free rallies, it will get expensive. I think it’s also going to be based on emotions. He is going to have to drive his first rallies well. We shouldn’t expect him to win rallies immediately in the WRC2 class, of course. But we can probably conclude quite a lot already from the way he handles himself and his car in those rallies. It will depend on that.
Kruus [42:28]: Your recommendation to him would be to drive other, smaller rallies as well?
Tänak [42:37]: Yes but I think we’re similar in a way, having the same background. Money doesn’t grow on trees. It’s always difficult to get a budget together. You have to do well when you get a chance.
Kruus [43:01]: When you watched the reactions in the media after you announced you would be leaving Hyundai… People were speculating where you would drive next – what did you think of that? We had many negative comments from Finland, it seemed. They were really going for it… What have you done to the Finns?
Tänak [43:24]: I don’t know. We’ve won Rally Finland three times. Maybe that’s the reason.
Kruus [43:29]: Timo Jouhki talks as if you’ve stung him with a needle.
Tänak [43:31]: Yes, it seems that way. I actually don’t know what the problem is between us.
Kruus [43:38]: Maybe it’s because he offered a contract to you as well and you sent him back to where he came from?
Tänak [43:48]: That’s not what I said to him then. What he offered was very tempting at the time…
Kruus [43:55]: That was in 2010?
Tänak [43:55]: Yes. But that didn’t work out back then and I don’t know… But I have nothing against Finns or the Finnish rally culture. I went to see Santa Claus in Rovaniemi during the weekend and people recognise me everywhere. That means rallying really is big in Finland and I only have respect for that.
Kruus [44:28]: Still, there seems to be a sharpness toward you there. Do you have any explanation for that? When you left Toyota, we got the same sort of talk. And now they were saying that you don’t really have any options and the best thing to do is to stay at home.
Tänak [44:59]: I don’t know what the explanation is. We didn’t leave Toyota with a grudge, nor Hyundai, nor M-Sport. Generally, the WRC community is so small, just three teams now, and everyone knows everyone else. There’s no point in getting into arguments with people. In the end, we’re like one small family and while everyone has their own goals, their own ideas, their own emotions, their own thoughts, we’re all doing the same thing. I’ve never had cause to pick a fight with anyone.
Kruus [45:37]: The WRC community really is small. It’s a lot larger when we add the WRC2 crews as well. After Rally Sweden, something terrible happened in the world, and one driver with the Kremlin’s logos on his helmet was still competing for the rest of the season. Have you had discussions within the rallying family about why that driver was still there?
Tänak [46:06]: We have but in the end, it’s such a large system that it’s difficult to change it. I’m not personally acquainted with the people involved, I don’t know the background, and I think if I can’t personally change it, it’s not worth spending my energy there.
(From 46:35 to 50:05 they’re discussing Estonian sports media and Tänak’s grievances about it. I’ll exclude this from the translation as I don’t thing it’s interesting or relevant to international readers.)
Kruus [50:06]: Next year’s long awaited WRC calendar is out as well. Are you happy with it? We will be spending a little more time outside Europe. That means more long travels as well. Is it good for the sport? Which rallies in 2023 are you particularly looking forward to?
Tänak [50:32]: Mexico is back. What’s missing are maybe Argentina where the enthusiasm has always been great, and Wales is also a place where we should be going. Still, considering the difficult situation in the world, it looks like the sport has recovered a bit and we’re able to go more to far-away places again.
Kruus [50:59]: Would you say that it’s actually a miracle that Rally Estonia is on the calendar again? Do you think it’s to do with you driving under the Estonian flag?
Tänak [51:14]: (Laughing) What flag could I be driving under, then? Latvia’s?
Kruus [51:17]: No, I mean that Rally Estonia is in the calendar thanks to you as well.
Tänak [51:22]: Yes it is but in the end it’s in the calendar because of the work that the staff of Rally Estonia have been doing to get it there. They’re in the calendar because they can do things differently and they have created a good rally. They’re showing the way in some respects to other organisers. Sure, our country is small and we don’t have many people but we have many rally fans and people are interested in rallying here. At the end of the day, the enthusiasm we have in Estonia, the team that’s organising Rally Estonia, and myself driving are creating this opportunity together as a sort of trio.
Kruus [52:10]: What are these moments like when the opening ceremony is back in the center of Tartu and you’re driving over that podium. You must feel really proud?
Tänak [52:26]: Yeah, that’s great. That’s how these things should be organised and they could be done that way elsewhere as well where maybe there are far more people. As I said, this organising team has vision and they’re showing the way. I hope others will follow their lead.
Kruus [52:49]: You were candid in saying that you aim to win the title in one year with M-Sport. Which rally do you see yourself having a chance to make a difference? Monte is a bit difficult. You’ve had two retirements there in a row. [Actually, it’s three.] If you can finish on the points there, that would be a job well done.
Tänak [53:11]: It depends on the situation but in principle, we have to aim for wins from Rally Sweden onward.
Kruus [53:21]: Let’s talk about testing once again. M-Sport haven’t been prolific testers in recent years. Last year, for example, they tested for Rally Estonia and Rally Finland on the same days while the other teams were doing a separate test for Rally Finland. The contractual package you’ve put together – how much control do you have over the testing? Will everything be done just as you want?
Tänak [53:50]: (Smiling) Everything won’t be done just as I want. Rather, we’ll make these plans together and we’ll do what’s necessary at any given time. We’ll definitely do pre-event testing for Monte and for Sweden. After that, we’ll be flexible, saving test days from our stronger rallies, and spending them to make the car more competitive for rallies that are more difficult for us. The number of testing days is so limited as we discussed. We have to be smart about it.
Kruus [54:16]: What do you fear could stop you next season, apart from starting with an unfamiliar car? Maybe the little niggles that the Puma was prone to last season and that hampered Loeb? How do you minimise them?
Tänak [54:40]: There’s actually not much point in thinking about those because Martin and myself can’t do anything about them. In general, it’s not worth thinking about the negatives so much because you could become trapped in the negative in your head. Rather, you should think about what you can do better than previously and how we could be stronger.
Kruus [55:05]: Now that we have about 1 month until the start of the new season, what are your plans for the near future?
Tänak [55:15]: Now it’s Christmas. Hopefully we’ll get a few presents from Santa Claus and a couple of weeks’ rest, and we’ll start moving again at the beginning of January.
Kruus [55:26]: And then the circus will start again. Ott, I want to thank you for this hour that you spent with us and if we can do an interview again next year and you’re World Champion again, that would really be special. You’re really building it up to a great thing, using only a few words.
Tänak [55:50]: My idea is never to talk something up but to do things to build it up.
No sign of their 2023 livery yet but M-Sport are ready and excited to start their 2023 challenge.
Richard Millener: “We’re thrilled to be starting this new season with Ott leading the ranks. It’s been a productive few months, culminating in the pre-event test this week, and we’re ready to take on what is to come. I think we’re already seeing the benefits of working with Ott, and I hope Pierre comes to gain from this as well. Everyone back at Dovenby has been hard at work on both the Rally1 and Rally2 programmes to get us ready for this new season. I want to thank everyone for their commitment so far and together we should be able to deliver some very strong results this year.”
Ott Tänak: “Rallye Monte-Carlo is always a difficult one to expect something, but for sure it’s the trickiest rally of the season. It won’t be any easier this time as well to get into the rhythm right away, so we expect nothing less than another tricky weekend in the mountains. We tried to get the best out of our first test days and we were lucky to experience the car in different conditions. It’s never easy to start the season from the blank page and building up the setup, but the boys and girls from M-Sport are working hard and hopefully we are well prepared for the upcoming challenge. I’m really looking forward to our first race together.”
Pierre-Louis Loubet: “I’m really happy with this week’s test; we tried a number of things, much more than usual, and the car felt great. The car is built for these kinds of roads and it’s very enjoyable to drive. I hope we will see similar conditions to the test on the rally next week, that would suit us really well. I’m trying to stay calm, it’s a fantastic opportunity to have my first full season with M-Sport, but it’s also a big responsibility and I take that very seriously. So, I’m trying to keep a cool head, and we’ll see how we do throughout the season. We have all the tools we need to do well.”
Adrien Fourmaux: “Rallye Monte Carlo is, of course, the most famous in the Championship, and it’s always a fantastic way to start the season. We’re hoping for a good result on this rally to give us the best start possible for the WRC2 Championship. It’s one of the most difficult rallies of the season, with tricky and changing road conditions, and we should have the full effect with some snow and ice conditions too. I’m looking forward to getting back out in a Rally2 and seeing what we can achieve.”
Grégoire Munster: “We’re looking forward to going to Monte Carlo for the first time with a car prepared by M-Sport. We’ve done the rally a few times in the past so we have some experience there, but I don’t think it would be realistic to say we will aim straight for a big result. We will just try to get familiar with the car, be consistent throughout the weekend and see where we end up. We want to start our campaign on a good footing.”
Toyota Gazoo Racing have officially launched their 2023 campaign today.
Team boss Jari-Matti Latvala: “As a rally fan the start of the season is always a very exciting moment and this year is no different. Every team is able to win so we expect that this season is going to be tougher and more challenging. But we like this challenge and we enjoy having to really fight for victories. Of course, we have to have the three titles as our target once again. We know we have a strong car but we also know that we need to keep working hard and that there are areas where we have to improve compared to last year. Every year you have to look for where you can make your car better and there are a few things which we have changed for this year. We have everything ready; we have a car which has been competitive and reliable and our drivers are all familiar with that car and hungry for results. With Rallye Monte-Carlo we start with the most difficult rally of the season. Going into the first stages in the darkness on Thursday night is a huge challenge for the drivers, and at the end of the weekend you want to finish with a good result to start the season.”
Kalle Rovanperä: “My feeling is good before the start of the new season. We know that it will not be easy to defend the championship. We have seen that the competition level is getting higher all the time, so we need to try and raise our game also and keep pushing hard. The team is again doing a great job to try and maximise the performance and make the car faster and stronger. Rallye Monte-Carlo is a special event, and usually makes for a bit of a tricky and nervous start to the season. But I’m more confident going into the rally than I was last year when everything was so new with the car; now I know that we should have everything in the right direction and be able to have an easier start. It’s never simple to have a clean rally there, but that will be our plan to begin the season in the right way.”
Elfyn Evans: “The WRC off-season is always pretty short but I was still happy to take a bit of a break and now I feel ready to go into the new season. Last year fell short of my own expectations personally, but we managed to make some progress and I’m hoping to be able to put better results together this season. The team is always working to evolve the car, and twelve months in to the Rally1 era we understand things a lot better. Like always it should be a competitive year but I definitely feel that we’re in a better place to challenge, and to fight for the title remains my goal. Rallye Monte-Carlo is a classic event and one that everyone wants to win. It’s always a big challenge, especially with the conditions, but it’s a challenge I enjoy and hopefully we can start the year with a positive result.”
Sébastien Ogier: “I’m still very excited at the start of the season, even though I’m no longer taking part in the full year. It’s always a pleasure to sit behind the steering wheel of a top WRC car. Last year I really enjoyed doing these few rallies. It was good to see I could still be competitive and the target is to try and stay on a similar level this year and fight for some more wins. I know that the team is never relaxing; even though the last seasons have been very successful, they are still working very hard. Rallye Monte-Carlo is probably the one I want to win the most and I will do my best once more. Preparation has been more difficult as everybody is limited to one day of testing, which is difficult for such a complex event with different conditions and tyre options. But it’s the same for everybody, and I will try to make the most of my experience.”
The Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT have officially launched their 2023 campaign today. Here’s what the drivers had to say.
Thierry Neuville: “The competition is going to be very tough again, but after a strong second half of 2022 for us, I think we can expect a more equal fight during 2023. The target remains unchanged: to win both championships.”
Esapekka Lappi: “I’ve done a couple of days testing the car, and it was a positive surprise to feel so comfortable in it so quickly. We are ahead of where I was expecting us to be and I’m looking forward to getting started.”
Dani Sordo: “The start of a new season means that everybody is equal on points, and we don’t know yet how competitive the other cars will be. I feel this could be a really good one for us; it is not so much a case of finding our feet, but continuing momentum.”
Craig Breen: “It is great to be back at Hyundai Motorsport. The car is completely new, but it feels really nice to drive. There is no reason why we can’t win the title again; all the ingredients are there to do it.”