How Ott Tanak defied all odds to snatch his first ever WRC title?

At the start of the 2019 WRC (World Rally Championship) season, nobody would have ever predicted that Ott Tanak would be the WRC Champion against the likes of top rally guys like multiple champion and very competent contenders; names like Sebastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Thierry Neuville.

In the second to last rally event of the year, the Rally Spain was the scene for the battle royale between Neuville and Tanak for the Drivers’ crown. Tanak has been consistent all season long, while Neuville, though pulled off several amazing performances, isn’t as persistent as his Estonian rival. Going into the penultimate round, Tanak had a 28-point lead over perennial WRC champion Ogier and a further 13 points laid JM Latvala. These men were the ones with a shot at the title. Ogier knows how to win as he has done it six times, but does the odds favor him this time around?

The other title, the manufacturer, is to be decided at the Rally Spain between Toyota and. Hyundai, who are just 8 points apart.

The stage was set for the Rally Spain last weekend and it began with 9-time champion Sebastien Loeb burning the tracks to lead all drivers. Loeb showed everybody who’s boss but it wouldn’t be his day, eventually. Loeb, representing Hyundai WRT, led Neuville and Dani Sordo to a 1-2-3 finish in the first leg. Tanak struggled to a fifth place finish behind Citroen’s Kris Meeke. Meantime, Ogier’s race was ruined by a leakage which caused a power steering failure. The 6-time WRC champion  had to send in the car for repairs, which put him 17th by the end of the first leg.  Heading into the second leg, the top five were Loeb, Neuville, Sordo, Meeke and Tanak.

Leg 2 saw plenty of action as Loeb faded into background. That gave Neuville an opportunity to jump into the lead early and the Belgian kept it until the end of the leg. He led home his team mate but Tanak made progress as well, going from fifth to third by the end of day two. Loeb ended his day two run in fourth, ahead of Latvala. Day three was about to unfold with either Tanak taking his first ever title or the title fight moving up to the finale in Australia.

Tanak commented after the second leg, “I wasn’t feeling too relaxed but now I’ve been able to learn a bit and get into a rhythm. We would like to keep the pressure, but to take the time back will be difficult.”

All eyes were set for day three where the battle royale would take place. Tanak needed a second place to seal his maiden title, would he get it? The Hyundai drivers won’t just hand him the title. Neuville was rather unstoppable since day two as he continued to pound the tarmac to increase his lead. The order maintained going into the bonus run or Power Stage.

The power stage was the key moment for Tanak as he swept past Sordo to go 2nd overall. He would finish 17.2 seconds behind Neuville which was enough to put his hands on the crown. Sordo was third, followed by Loeb and Latvala.

In post-rally a jubilant Tanak said, “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, I just had to make it happen.”

Tanak’s win ended the 15-year  Frenchmen’s domination of the WRC by Loeb and Ogier. He becomes the first Toyota driver to win a title since Didier Auriol in 1994, as well as the first Estonian with a World Rally crown.

Neuville’s third victory of the season came down to only the manufacturers’ title to play for, as Hyundai grabbed an 18-point lead from Toyota, going into the season finale at the Rally Australia 14 – 17 November.

2019 WRC Rally Spain results

1. T Neuville / N Gilsoul BEL Hyundai i20 3hr 07min 39.6sec
2. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Toyota Yaris +17.2sec
3. D Sordo / C del Barrio ESP Hyundai i20 +17.6sec
4. S Loeb / D Elena FRA Hyundai i20 +53.9sec
5. J-M Latvala / M Anttila FIN Toyota Yaris +1min 00.2sec

Drivers standings

1. O Tänak 263pts (new champion)
2. T Neuville 227
3. S Ogier 217