Analysis: Ott Tänak’s WRC championship brings many positives to the sport
Estonian ends Sebastien Ogier’s six-year run of World Rally Championship season titles
Ott Tänak’s first name is pronounced Oit. So chanting “Ott! Ott! Ott!” left many in his faithful army of followers sounding more like the flock of seagulls from “Finding Nemo” than racing fans.
It felt like half of the tiny Baltic republic of Estonia was on the hillside for Rally Spain this past weekend to whoop and holler their man Ott Tänak to his first World Rally Championship title.
I was among them as Stage 3, south of Barcelona, went live. But Team Tänak had been there for hours. Fans had erected a massive Estonian flag on a frame of fallen tree trunks and set up a bar selling hot dogs and cold beer. Only those from a country close to the Arctic would wear only shorts on a 60-degree fall morning.
“If Tänak wins, the whole country will feel like it has won,” said one Estonian disciple.
I was on the dusty Spanish hillside with two cameramen from the WRC+ TV channel, who had a running commentary being fed to them of what was happening beyond the horizon. We had word that Sebastien Ogier — Tänak’s main challenger for the 2019 title, which could be settled in this, the penultimate round of the season — had lost time. Maybe the Estonians didn’t know. I’d have expected them to roar with delight in Ogier’s misfortune.
“We know,” my Estonian neighbor on the hillside acknowledged with the most sanguine of tones. “But there is a long way to go.”
For the fans and for Tänak, this has been a long road to the world championship. This is his second bite at WRC after being dropped by the de facto Ford team, returning to Estonia and opening a business, entering a tire company’s rally version of “X Factor” for fun and, once back in the WRC, being noticed by Toyota to earn a works drive. That journey concluded on Oct. 27, when he took the world crown.
“It’s difficult to say the pressure I felt this weekend — it was next level. To manage all this and get through it has been the target of my life. When you are on the verge of this, you cannot imagine it,” said Tänak. “I just had to make it happen.”
He might now be the best rally driver on the planet, but Tänak is not universally appreciated. Maybe he is misunderstood. But he has made some odd career choices to raise eyebrows, like commissioning his own celebratory movie last year.
But, if the news is to be believed, the most bizarre twist is the leak last weekend that he is reportedly jumping ship from Toyota to Hyundai for 2020. About to deliver Toyota’s first WRC driver’s title since Didier Auriol was champion in 1994 and for a team who gave this WRC reject a second chance, news of Tänak’s alleged switch to Toyota’s well-funded Korean rivals was a strategic masterstroke to distract his opposition or a bungled leak. Imagine his loyal mechanics hearing the news as they are expected to support a driver about to jump ship.
Tänak’s title brings many positives. He ends a 15-year run of title wins by French drivers names Sebastien. Sebastien Loeb won nine titles from 2004 until 2012, and Ogier won the last six. Ogier is about to retire from WRC to focus on family and the occasional Extreme E electric adventure races. This nearly two-decade dominance by the French pair has been remarkable but also rather excluding.
In its previous heydays, WRC had a much deeper championship gene pool. Tänak will hopefully lead a more unpredictable era that will include the return of exciting old WRC events like the Safari Rally in Kenya and Rally New Zealand. However, with Ogier leaving WRC and Loeb a bit-part player these days, Tänak will be the only world champion in the 2020 lineup. That makes him likely favorite for back-to-back titles.
Depressingly, as a rally aficionado, news of Tänak’s title win is hard to find. Even motorsport platforms, including those in the rallying heartland of Europe, have run news of his championship way down their home pages.
No other world championship asks so much versatility of its protagonists. On route to his crown, Tänak was victorious in six events – on snow, gravel and asphalt. Ex-F1 driver David Coulthard once described rally drivers as the best drivers in the world. So that makes Ott Tänak – the 2019 World Rally Champion — the best driver in the world.
All that is needed now is for people outside Estonia to know how to chant his name.