WRC: Arctic Rally Finland Winners and Losers
Round 2 and the annual snow event is over for another year, we look at who were the winners and losers as the WRC leaves the Arctic circle.
1. Ott Tanak
It's hard to look past anyone other than Ott Tanak as the star of the first-ever Arctic Rally Finland. Having led from start to finish, he claimed a dominant victory as well as two bonus power stage points, reminding everyone he still means business after the disappointment of Monte Carlo. After a difficult season opening, it did feel as though a victory here would be the only acceptable result if he was serious about reclaiming the championship and with that added pressure you might have thought it wouldn't be quite so straight forward.
But it was, and that I think is what makes this performance feel so impressive, the nature of his victory was just so impressive. It was pure dominance. Not once over the weekend did it look as though he was going to finish anywhere but first, and this is what we were missing from Tanak last year and what we saw in 2019, a sense that it was almost inevitable that he was going to win. This is excellent news for the Estonian, but if you are a fellow championship contender you are taking a serious gulp right now as with this form it is hard to see anyone stopping him.
2. Oliver Solberg
Oh, how much fun was this! Having a Solberg back in the WRC's top-class could be just what the world of rallying needs right now. Pure excitement on every corner he drove made for fantastic viewing and you just couldn't take your eyes off him, and what's more, not only was it dramatic but it was fast too. Regularly in the top 4 fastest on stages meant he was sitting pretty in sixth coming into the final stage. And for a brief moment, it looked as though he might be about to earn himself some bonus points, it was not to be, however, a spin into the snowbank cost him a chunk of time which in the end dropped him down behind Katsuta into seventh.
But at the end of the day sixth or seventh, who really cares. Of course, Solberg will be disappointed to drop a position but as a first outing in a WRC car, I can't remember a debut causing as much of a stir for a very long time. Not even that of Kalle Rovanpera last year in Monte Carlo got as many people as excited as did Solberg last weekend, this tells you not only of the popularity of the teenager but the sheer talent that he has. It is currently unclear when we will next see Solberg in a WRC car as he is committed to a WRC2 campaign. Although, it may seem his objectives have slightly changed now with other drivers having a large advantage over him in that particular championship and the rounds he competes on for the remainder of the season will likely be more just to get the experience of typical WRC rounds he is yet to have entered so far.
3. The Arctic Rally
With the news of Sweden's cancellation early in the year, immediately there was speculation that the Arctic Rally would take its place. The only problem was the national event was getting ready to start, fortunately, rather than simply replace the national event the organisers decided to keep it as well as accepting the challenge of organising an event to World Championship standards. And boy did it pay off.
The organisers used the best aspects of the national event, and along with some added new stages, it gave the Rally a real feeling of being new and going into the unknown. This is something the championship could be accused of not doing enough over recent years with a usual core group of rallies making it hard to find new events and challenges. Last year we saw Monza and Estonia make an impact on the championship and by simply being different allowed for great viewing, this year we have more variation compared to recent years and if all of them offer as much as the Arctic then we are in for a treat. One thing this does mean is Sweden is now under a lot of pressure as it is now clear there is more than one possibility for the annual snow rally.
1. Sebastien Ogier
In all honesty, nobody expected much from Sebastien Ogier going into the Arctic rally, having once again been victories in Monte Carlo he had the unenvious task of opening the road on the snow. For a brief moment in the build-up to the event, it seemed as though it might not be quite as detrimental as usual as the intensely cold conditions meant there would be less of a cleaning effect in place. Unfortunately, for the early runners, Finland decided to shine with sun meaning the snow on the road was as bad as ever and the further forward you were the worse it was. Ogier doesn't have a great recent record in Sweden so we thought a good result for him would be a solid midfield position with a couple of power stage points, however, things started badly and just seemed to get worse.
On Friday he had dropped to ninth, behind almost all of the other Rally1 cars. Because of this he once again had a rough starting position on Saturday which became a day purely for recovery, and to be fair to Ogier he was making some headway. Managing to climb to sixth overall going into the final stage of the day it seemed as though he had done as much as realistically possible to limit the damage. And then, disaster with meters to go he binned it, stuck in a snowbank. Somehow, he managed to dig the stricken Yaris out of the bank but had still lost many minutes and was left well out of the point paying positions. All this meant that on Sunday he had one objective, power stage points, this was not an easy task though as once again he was left with a bad road position, in the end, he managed to leave Finland with a single point thanks to a fifth place in the power stage. Not the weekend he would have liked but with the prospect of tarmac and Croatia in April there are things to look forward to.
2. Elfyn Evans
It was a similar expectation for Elfyn Evans as being second on the road was little improvement and a big result seemed unlikely from the outset. There was still more optimism surrounding the Welshman going into the event, however, as being the winner in Sweden last year and in the best form of his career, you felt as though he might be able to salvage a possible podium. As it turned out it was not to be, he did show glimpses of the speed we saw last year and in Monte, with some impressive stage wins but at the same time, there were stages where he simply dropped too much time to make those stage wins really count.
Twice he was within striking distance of the Hyundai's of Thierry Neuville and Craig Breen but twice he was unable to capitalise and they both managed to fend him off. After 5 stages He was only 2.6 seconds off Neuville who ended in third and even going into the final stage he had managed to restrict the gap between Breen and himself to 3.6 seconds. Because of this he is rightly disappointed to have only finished fifth and on top of that not score any points in the power stage, you might think him being overly self-critical by labelling his start to the season as "Terrible" but you can understand his frustration. After last season he's at a level where anything other than his absolute best just isn't good enough.
Now don’t get me wrong, this is nothing related to the standard of the category itself. On the contrary, in my opinion, WRC2 is one of the best motorsport categories in the world. The real reason I have included it in the losers section is because of its coverage or their lack of by WRC all live. Only on a handful of stages did we see any of the action from the WRC’s support championship and when we did, it was only ever one or two of the top contenders, resulting in us missing much of the drama and having to make do with social media to keep updated.
The WRC all live platform has been a revolutionary for coverage of world rallying, it has done vast amounts of positive for accessibility and the unprecedented coverage the likes of which we had never seen before is fantastic. But where it isn’t necessarily so good is when they start to adapt the programming for a TV audience when some of the stages are on channels such as BT Sport using the same coverage. Because of this and the limited time slots they allow, it means the WRC2 is a second thought let alone the WRC3. In Finland this showed most evidently as there was little talk of the championship even in the media zone, bar the occasional comment on Lappi or Mikkelsen. This is devastating for up and coming drivers who are starved of attention anyway and being disregarded by all live must feel like a kick in the teeth.