Bittersweet: Losing your new World Champion
Toyota’s return to the World Rally Championship (WRC) has been an overnight success. Led by four times world champion, Tommi Makinen, the team have clinched world titles for both team and driver. Quite an achievement in only 3 seasons back in the sport’s top flight.
In the 1990’s, Toyota were a superpower in the WRC. Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen and Didier Auriol all became world champions at the wheel of a Toyota WRC car.
However, these successes were to be tainted by devious cheating in 1995. An illegal turbo restrictor was uncovered by stewards and Toyota were excluded from the 1995 and 1996 championships. At the end of 1999, Toyota departed the WRC for a 17-year hiatus.
At the time, Toyota played a significant role in the affordable, yet desirable, performance car market. Models like the Celica and Supra were coveted by tuners and the Toyota brand was widely regarded as a fine choice for the enthusiastic driver. Fast forward to 2016, prior to Toyota’s WRC return, and Toyota’s brand image was somewhat different. A pioneer in hybrid technology with the revolutionary Prius, sure, but a Toyota performance car? Of course not.
In any company, the personal wishes of those atop the corporate ladder, will always influence activity. Toyota CEO and President, Mr Toyoda, suffers from the same obsession for fast cars as many of us do. Most CEO’s spend their weekend clearing out e mails, lobbying politicians and apologising to their long suffering families. Mr Toyoda, on the other hand, indulges his passion for motorsport. Given his stature, Mr Toyoda races under the alias of “Morizo”, in a futile attempt to conceal his identity. In 2019, “Morizo” even attempted the gruelling Nurburgring 24 hour race.
Undoubtedly driven by Mr Toyoda’s passion for performance cars, Toyota’s product range has embarked on a return to desirability. In 2019, the company revived the iconic Supra, going head to head in the showrooms with Porsche. A bold move fuelled by a love of fast cars, led from the very top of the automotive giant.
Toyota’s World Rally Championship programme has been lavished with funds to ensure every chance of success. Fielding a three car team, hiring top drivers, operating from the rallying heartland of Finland and a multiple world champion team principal. Toyota have left nothing to chance.
In 2018, Toyota clinched the corporately significant manufacturers world championship. Ironically, mechanical woes with the fast yet fragile Yaris WRC, robbed Ott Tanak of the opportunity to claim the drivers crown as well. In 2019, the score was settled in dominant fashion.
Despite superb pace from Belgian rival, Thierry Neuville and the constant threat of 6-times world champion, Sebastien Ogier; Ott Tanak had both in his pocket all season. Estonia’s first ever world champion was the class of the field all year, delivering seven rally wins for Toyota.
As the season progressed, speculation was rife on which machine Tanak will take to the start line in Monte Carlo for the start of the 2020 season. Given his supreme pace, every team in the service park has postured to claim Tanak’s services for 2020. Would it be a return to a Fiesta WRC? Keep the status quo in a Yaris WRC? In the end, much to the surprise of most in the sport, Tanak chose neither of the aforementioned options.
In 2020, Ott Tanak, will take the number 1 plate to the Hyundai World Rally Team. Enigmatic Italian, Andrea Adamo, deployed smooth talking and a thick Korean chequebook, to convince world rallying’s hottest property to jump ship to the Hyundai team. Hyundai will head into the 2020 season having disarmed their strongest rival, Toyota.
Despite the cool temperament of the Finnish/Japanese alliance at Toyota Gazoo Racing, emotions must be running high. Their star driver being poached by rival Hyundai, fresh off a world championship triumph, will be a bitter pill to swallow. Unrivalled budget, arguably the fastest car in the WRC and a team built around Ott Tanak have not been enough to stave off the advances from rivals. A World Championship trophy for both team and driver may be proudly on display at Toyota HQ but the mood must be sombre.
In the WRC, only three drivers currently possess the credentials to be genuine world title contenders. Over the length of a season, Sebastien Ogier, Ott Tanak and Thierry Neuville have operated in a class above the rest since the latest generation of WRC car was introduced in 2017.
For a manufacturer, ploughing millions into a factory WRC programme, luring one of these three drivers is essential to world championship success. Currently, there are no other alternatives.
Having failed to retain their Estonian superstar, Toyota find themselves lacking in the most vital area. With Neuville and Tanak off the market, Toyota have one option to continue their current success. Hiring Sebastien Ogier.
However, poaching Ogier from his current Citroen contract will not be straightforward. Longing for more family time at home in Switzerland, Ogier has clearly stated that 2020 will be his final season in the WRC. French factory Citroen have Ogier under contract to drive their troublesome C3 WRC in his final season.
Ogier’s return to Citroen in 2019 has been turbulent. Three wins, including a superb drive in Monte Carlo, have done little to temper Ogier’s displeasure with the handling of his Citroen C3 WRC. It is clear the 6 times world champion feels that C3’s tricky nature has held him back from adding a 7th title to his outstanding record. For a driver so accustomed to dominance, might he be tempted to hop into the Toyota seat vacated by the new world champion?
Many questions remain unanswered. Can Ogier escape his Citroen contract? Does he want to? What is certain that Ogier is the only driver in the WRC that can fill the gaping void left at Toyota by Ott Tanak. Without Ogier, Toyota cannot hope to replicate their WRC title success of 2019. A reality that must be difficult to accept whilst the taste of world champion champagne still lingers on the palate.