Ott Tanak’s comeback has been remarkable. Two rallies ago he sat almost 50 points behind Sebastien Ogier, clinging onto a distant third in his clearly struggling Yaris. Two dominant wins later and Tanak has nestled himself firmly back in as a title contender.
Yes, these were two rallies that clearly suited Tanak and Toyota. Yes, he clearly benefitted from the upgraded engine. But also yes, it is the closest the top three have been with four rallies to go since 2011, when like today 36 points separated the championship leader from third.
Back then it was Mikko Hirvonen who was trailing behind Sebastien Loeb and Ogier, and the Finn was able to leapfrog Ogier into second and end the season 18 points behind champion Loeb.
Of course 2018 doesn’t replicate 2011 exactly. 2011 was no sudden rocket into championship contention. Hirvonen had been leading the championship for the first few events and it was for only the one round that he sat behind Ogier at all. Nevertheless it says a lot that for much of the past seven years the championship leader has been up to a hundred points ahead of his nearest rivals.
Last year at this point Ogier and Thierry Neuville were tied on 160 points with Tanak 41 behind, but by Australia 10 months ago Ogier was 24 points ahead of Neuville, with Tanak lagging a further 17 behind the Belgian. Ogier and Tanak had steady finishes to the season, taking 72 points apiece, while two point-less finishes for Neuville ended his title aspirations.
This time around, going into Rally Turkey it’s Neuville 23 points ahead of Ogier, with Tanak only 13 points behind the reigning champ. One bad, or indeed good, result for any of them has the potential to still turn the entire championship upside down.
Going to Turkey is a step into the unknown. Last time the WRC went there back in 2010 none of the 2018 protagonists were in their prime, although all three did compete. Ogier did the best, as would be expected, finishing in fourth. Perhaps the biggest factor that might come into play is the performance of the Toyota. The team are having to revert back to the engine specification from earlier in the season due to homologation regulations and it is the new engine that has widely been attributed to Tanak’s recent upturn in fortune.
Toyota could well also be fazed by the conditions of Rally Turkey. The hot weather and high altitude of Mexico led to overheating in all three Yaris and if the problem has not been fixed these issues could plague them again. A turbo problem ended Tanak’s rally that time, something that cannot be allowed to happen again if he’s serious about mounting a late-season championship charge.
Tanak has said that he is still not totally comfortable with the chassis of his Yaris so it remains to be seen if without the updated engine the Estonian is able pull any more Finland-esque performances out of the bag.
The car has flourished thus far in 2018 when the conditions have been stable, struggling in some of the changeable environments earlier in the season. Rally GB could be another challenge, with the unpredictable muddy weather being some of the most unreliable on the calendar. Last year Tanak was very unsettled in the foggy evening stages of the event and from the outside it doesn’t look as if it will be his big opportunity to make title gains.
Tanak had podium finishes in Spain and Australia last year but the question remains if he can pull that off again in different machinery. And a couple of second places won’t be enough for him if it’s Neuville or Ogier on the top step, especially if he doesn’t secure the maximum powerstage points.
But while Neuville and Tanak can at least concentrate all their efforts on the final four rallies of the year, Ogier is still entangled in contract negotiations for 2019 and does not know which team he will be driving for, if indeed he is competing in the WRC at all.
Ogier has made no secret of the fact that he is open to moving on from the championship in the near future. After all it is not as if he hasn’t achieved an incredible amount over the past decade. But while M-Sport and Citroen vie for his attention, his rivals are enjoying the advantages of knowing they are staying where they are for next season.
At the moment Tanak has no pressure on him. While Neuville and Ogier have to play the points game and can’t afford to push beyond their limits Tanak is still in the fortunate position where a death-or-glory approach could pay off.
Of course this would all change if Tanak is still in a championship winning position by the time Australia rolls around. Then the tables would turn with Tanak disadvantaged by his lack of experience of the championship fight. Last year Neuville crumbled under the pressure of his first big championship showdown and Ogier will continue to benefit in 2018 from his back catalogue of winning experience.
But perhaps the important thing is, whoever ultimately becomes victorious, there are three top drivers, from three different teams, capable of taking this championship.
There’s still 120 points left to win in 2018. It really is all to play for.