The World Rally Championship’s silly season took on new heights over the weekend with news that Ott Tanak is set to sign with Hyundai for 2020.
Silly season? Perhaps it should be re-named the ‘surely not’ season.
British sources “have confirmed the deal was completed earlier this month”, although nothing official has been revealed.
Seeing Tanak – who clinched his first WRC title in Spain – drive alongside arch-rival Thierry Neuville and nine-time World Champion Sebastien Loeb would create a modern day dream team.
Why the Estonian would switch to Toyota’s rival, and the team most likely to win this year’s manufacturers’ championship, is a strange one.
Does he believe the Hyundai is the better car, or is it simply all about money?
He’s widely regarded as the best rally driver in the world at present, so there’s a good argument that he’s going to win in whatever car he drives.
Yet for reasons still unknown, Hyundai appear to have put a deal to him that he simply couldn’t refuse.
Once the Tanak card falls, the rest of the driver market will start to take shape.
Toyota reportedly only has Kalle Rovanpera signed for next year, leaving not only Kris Meeke’s and Jari-Matti Latvala’s plans in limbo, but also that of the team’s #1 driver (whoever that may be).
A Tanak team change would also leave both Andreas Mikkelsen and Craig Breen out on a limb as well (Dani Sordo has a six-event program), and clearly there’s going to be more top-line drivers than seats available.
Sebastien Ogier’s technical problems in Spain have also triggered talk of a possible move from Citroen to Toyota, should Tanak be on the move, but that appears unlikely given the Frenchman’s rumoured $12 million plus salary. Still, you never know.
None of this is playing out well for drivers such as Mads Ostberg and Hayden Paddon, although underperforming drivers Teemu Suninen and Esapekka Lappi may offer some hope.
Both drivers are contracted, but teams want results, and neither has shown more than a glimpse of their capabilities this season.
In all probability, and we’re probably entering a new era of the sport where teams have one (perhaps two) lead drivers contesting the whole championship, with a number of drivers entering events they specialise in.
This is what Hyundai have done in recent seasons, and has this year put them in the box seat to win the manufacturers’ championship.
Drivers’ titles are nice, but it’s the manufacturers’ championship that those who write the cheques want, and it could mean we’re in for more drivers competing in less events.
Whatever the outcome, it proves that the WRC is in a strong position, which is great news for Kiwis with Rally New Zealand returning in September 2020.