At the end of 2020, the Swedish government and the WRC promoters suddenly announced Rally Sweden has been canceled, about a month away from the 2021 WRC season opening because of the surging number of COVID-19 patients in the country. Since it was the only rally covered with 100% snow and ice among the WRC rallies, the promoter searched for another icy road to cover it. Then came the Arctic Rally Finland for the first time in the WRC. It is also the first WRC rally to be held in the Arctic Circle.
The Arctic Rally was held in Rovaniemi from February 26 to 28, which is located about 900 km north from Helsinki, the country’s capital. Rovaniemi is also well known for the hometown of Santa Claus, and when children from all over the world send letters that read ‘To: Santa Claus,’ they go to Rovaniemi (and, of course, Santa writes them back!).
The drivers and the rally cars in Rovaniemi have been expected to face long winter and near-zero temperatures. Arctic Rally, just like Rally Sweden last year, is the WRC’s only snow and ice fixture. In addition, those who are at Arctic Rally have to drive in the darkness since it receives only about 4 hours of sunlight.
Hyundai Motorsport has achieved good results at Rally Sweden until last season. Ott Tanak finished second at WRC Rally Sweden 2020, and Thierry Neuville did so two years before that; the northern European countries indeed traditionally have harbored some of the most successful drivers for these icy roads. Their i20 coupe WRC rally car is another reason the team could dominate. And it was not hard for many people to anticipate the team’s winning at Arctic Rally.
However, the team faced challenges at Rally Monte Carlo at the beginning of the season, hence the importance of winning the points at Arctic Rally grew and grew. Ott Tanak, Thierry Neuville, and Craig Breen were there for the team. Arctic Rally – Ott Tanak and Thierry Neuville had won Rally Sweden, akin to Arctic Rally, and Craig Breen had also finished second at Rally Swedish in 2018. All three players were well aware of snowy fields.
In the morning, on February 26, after three short shakedowns, the notorious Arctic rally has finally begun. For Rally Monte Carlo held in January, the tire strategy seemed to be the most important aspect because of the partly snowy roads. For Arctic Rally, however, all the rally cars had the same studded snow tires for the snowy and icy road. This meant that the performance of the car itself was more important than other factors, such as tires.
Starting from Friday afternoon, Ott Tanak sealed a dominant victory at WRC Arctic Rally. Drivers had to face the darkness that came early from the second 31.05km-long lap, because of the short daylight hours. Still, Tanak made a start-to-finish victory, widening the gap by 4 and 10 seconds, respectively, during the two laps. He was followed by his teammate Craig Breen. Neuville, on the other hand, finished 30sec adrift in fourth, probably because he had to fight the snow, making the road easier for other drivers. Yet, it was clear that the performance of the i20 coupe WRC was transcendent at Arctic Rally, based on the fact that the model won first, second, and fourth place altogether.
The pressure was the highest on Saturday as it took up almost 60% of all Arctic Rally. From the very beginning, on SS3, Tanak continued to lead the race and kept setting the new best records in a row. Neuville was having a communication problem with an intercom malfunction, but still handled the race with his unique sense of driving. In the following SS4, the Toyota Yaris finished first, second, and even third, but this wasn’t enough to beat Tanak, who had been already leading the race by far.
Tanak kept leading the following SS5 and SS6 as well, winning five stages out of six. The gap between Rovanpera in Toyota Yaris, following second, was 25 seconds – and by the time it was getting clear he would win the rally. In the meantime, Neuville also briskly climbed to 3rd place, overtaking his teammate Breen, then began to push Rovanpera. There were no surprises during the rest of the Saturday while Tanak continued to lead. Meanwhile, Neuville finished the day with a 1.8sec buffer to second place, making everyone anticipate a more exciting Sunday.
By the end of Saturday, the 2020 WRC driver’s champion winner Sebastien Ogier of Toyota has been relegated right after having an unfortunate accident. Ogier buried his Yaris into a snow drift turning left while trying to take the lead, leaving just 200 meters before finishing SS8 on Saturday. It took too much time for Ogier to stay in the top ten, making it impossible to earn points. It must have been a very disappointing accident for Ogier who had finished Monte Carlo Rally with a good result, and this changed everything for the rest of the competitors.
Things got easier from the third day. The rally cars had created guardrails made of snow while driving on it, making every narrow, snowy road superfast for all drivers including Tanak. For this reason, the snowy Arctic Rally ironically became the fastest rally on average along the season.
Another drama came along right before the finale of Arctic Rally. On Saturday evening, the team found Craig Breen’s car leaking oil. There was nothing they could until they are given 15 minutes for maintenance the next morning. Even during the cold, the crew together finished replacing the gearbox in 15 minutes, and Craig Breen was able to make it to the start line. The whole team has never felt so united.
The drivers had only two stages left for the upcoming Sunday. Tanak, leading the final day by over 24 sec, has been expected to gain a relatively easy victory. Now the remaining question was whether Neuville could overtake second place. It was technically a tie between Neuville and Rovanpera during SS9, but as Rovanpera finished the race 0.1 seconds faster, it put inevitable pressure on Neuville. Hyundai Motorsport as a team was aiming for its first driver’s championship after winning three manufacturer’s titles, so Neuville completing the race was as important as taking his second place.
The final SS10 had additional power stage points. Neuville started the course earlier than Rovanpera and drove with no regrets, narrowing the 1.9-second gap. Rovanpera once allowed Neuville to do so by 0.8 seconds until the mid-stage split time, but achieved the best record in the power stage by demonstrating perfect driving during the second half with full concentration until the end. Rovanpera, at last, won 2nd place at Arctic Rally with 5 additional points from the power stage, becoming the youngest winner in the history of the WRC.
Tanak, beginning the race last, continued to lead smoothly and earned the trophy to win Arctic Rally. Hyundai Motorsport reported their first win in the season 2021, completely forgetting about what had happened at the Monte Carlo rally. The team and Tanak also became the first-ever conquerer of Arctic Rally in the history of WRC, not to mention Neuville winning third place with a double podium. With Tanak’s victory, Hyundai grabbed the 18th WRC victory and recorded its 18th double podium. Another Hyundai driver Craig Breen took 4th place, sweeping 1st, 3rd, and 4th place for the team at Arctic Rally. The i20 coupe WRC rally car has once again excelled in extreme cold and snow.
Tanak’s victory provided a double podium for Hyundai Motorsport and gained 47 points, which reduced Toyota Gazoo Racing’s manufacturers’ championship lead to 11 points from 22. Tanak and Neuville also won 27 and 18 points, respectively, taking first and third place, placing themselves in the 5th and 2nd in the raking. In particular, Neuville stood on the podium for two consecutive races following the Monte Carlo rally, getting closer to winning the driver’s championship. Now, the score difference from Rovanpera is reduced to just 4 points.
Another notable result of Arctic Rally would be the overtake of young but notorious Oliver Solberg. Being the son of 2003 season WRC champion Petter Solberg, he was born in 2001 and got himself in his i20 Coupe at Arctic Rally at the age of 19 aiming the highest level of WRC. He placed 7th and won his first WRC points, successfully introducing himself to the whole world (and he would have finished the rally in 6th place if it were not for the spin in the very last corner at the power stage). Solberg is expected to further leave a stronger impression among fans around the world.
The upcoming is also the new Rally Croatia. The country became the 34th to host the WRC after Estonia last season. Hyundai Motorsport, having a relatively shorter motorsports history than its competitors, left a bold mark in the newly added rally. And again, this season a number of new rallies, including not only Croatia Rally, but also Belgium, Kenya (Safari), Japan, etc. As the new season continues to be an opportunity for Hyundai, people are wondering if Hyundai could achieve the grand slam, winning both driver’s and manufacturer’s championships at the same time. Let’s look forward to seeing Hyundai at Rally Croatia.