M-Sport and Tanak proved tyre decisions are still crucial
Tyre compounds proved ultimately decisive in determining the outcome of Rally Chile; it's an aspect rarely seen in the modern WRC.
Crews expected abrasive roads ahead of the WRC’s return to the South American nation but not to the extent as witnessed last Saturday.
While there was plenty of focus on Toyota’s ultimately incorrect decision to opt for soft rubber across its entries, M-Sport and Ott Tanak deserved huge credit for being the only crew to take at least four hards.
“I think the whole team is very happy with the position we find ourselves in, and I would say it is not through luck, but strategy and the hard work that we have put in to come here this weekend,” said tam principal Richard Millener.
TACTICAL MASTERSTROKE!— M-Sport (@MSportLtd) September 30, 2023
Epic team work with the tyre strategy sees us shoot 47 seconds into the lead!
Awesome work by all 👏 pic.twitter.com/DmuoqvpqvW
"The engineers were pushing for this one [tyre call] and I think Ott was 75% sure he wanted to go with this strategy, but was maybe a little bit unsure this morning, but as soon as he got to the end of the first stage he knew he had the best package.
“I think we can be really happy with that, and that for me is a perfect example of teamwork.”
The decision ultimately provided Tanak the platform to complete a tyre saving masterclass to score a convincing 42.1s victory over Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville. The win ended an eight-month barren run for the team.
The WRC title race is still on just…..
The World Rally Championship title fight between Toyota duo Kalle Rovanpera and Elfyn Evans will continue to at least the penultimate round of the season.
Reigning world champion Rovanpera admittedly had a slim chance of securing a second title but realistically it required a victory and for Evans to hit trouble.
Rovanpera’s title prospects were put in check effectively once he saw Chile’s loose and abrasive gravel roads. The road cleaning effect was huge but Rovanpera coped well to end Friday 38.7s adrift in fourth. It did look as though Evans would eat into his championship lead as the Welshman held second spot until stage nine on Saturday before Toyota’s challenge for victory faltered.
A decision to take soft tyres for Saturday morning’s loop of particularly abrasive gravel stages proved to be “quite a mistake” according to Evans, who dropped almost a minute after running his tyres to breaking point. Rovanpera also lost 40s due to the same tyre woes, but Evans' trouble did at least help stem the loss of his championship lead as his rival finished the rally fourth, one place ahead Rovanpera.
Rovanpera’s now customary Power Stage win, however, over Evans means his lead has only been reduced to 31 points with two rounds to spare.
“I’m not really [happy with the result for the championship], but I was happy Elfyn was close and not far away and he only caught up a few points,” said Rovanpera.
Evans added: “It’s hard to be happy in these circumstances but it could be a lot worse. It’s still a fight in the championship even though the gap is marginally reduced, but of course it’s still open.”
But the manufacturers crown was settled in dramatic fashion
While the aforementioned botched tyre decision severely damaged any hopes of a Toyota victory, the Japanese marque did leave Chile with a third consecutive manufacturers’ title.
This title fight with Hyundai also looked set to continue to the Central European Rally later this month as the latter seemed on course to score a double podium through Teemu Suninen and Thierry Neuville. Suninen had impressed in only his third Rally1 outing to sit in second for the majority of the event.
However, the championship battle turned on its head in the penultimate stage when Suninen clipped a tree stump, causing terminal damage to his front right suspension. His exit coupled with Rovanpera’s and Evans’ Power Stage showing was enough to hand the title to Toyota.
The title is Toyota’s seventh with only Lancia (10) and Citroen (8) scoring more manufacturers’ crowns in WRC’s 50-year history.
“First of all, I’m really proud of the team and the drivers and all the work we have done during the season,” said Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala.
“It has been an incredible job because we are getting the title two rounds before the end of the season, and it is the earliest that we have ever won the title as Toyota Gazoo Racing, so it shows that we have done things right and also the drivers have done a great job
“For sure, it [three titles in a row] is unique [in the modern era]. It is not easy to do that and I have to say the competition level is hard, the cars are very close to each other.
“I think the most important part where we have made the difference is the reliability and we have been able to bring the cars home without problems and I think that for the championship is one of the crucial points.”
Munster’s eventful Rally1 debut triggers Rovanpera’s comedic side
A Rally1 debut is huge moment for any rally driver. Incredibly, Gregoire Munster headed into Chile having enjoyed starts in the Junior WRC and WRC2 this year, meaning he is the only driver to have made WRC starts in Rally3, Rally2 and Rally1 machinery.
However, before his first competitive stage in a Ford Puma Rally1, Munster’s co-driver Louis Louka realised he had left his pacenote book behind. Luckily, his quick thinking saved the day as someone was able to send photos of his phone and somehow was able to call directions to Munster across the morning loop.
An added challenge on your Rally1 debut - not that it slowed Grégoire too much! 😅 pic.twitter.com/mFOaNuSJLe— World Rally Championship (@OfficialWRC) September 30, 2023
Munster coped admirably on Chile’s difficult terrain to hold seventh but it began to unravel on stage 12 when he ran into a bank, causing punctures to his right front and rear tyres. After a seven-minute stoppage to fit new rubber, he rejoined the stage ahead of Rovanpera.
Rovanpera quickly caught his dust trail that left him clearly visibly impaired, forcing the Finn to back off. But Rovanpera showed his comedic side in dealing with an issue that would have infuriated many.
“It's a bit like driving in Super Mario Kart when someone is throwing bananas or smoke bombs in front of you,” he smiled. “I was definitely losing a lot of time, let's see how much we get back.”
Rovanpera was awarded an amended time, while Munster was fined €500 for failing to pull over and dropped outside the top 10.
WRC3 champion crowned despite Chile absence
Roope Korhonen and co-driver Anssi Viinika were crowned WRC3 champions despite not attending the event.
Debuting in WRC3 this year, Finnish youngster Korhonen was untouchable all season long, remarkably claiming victory in all four rallies – Sweden, Portugal, Sardinia and Estonia – that counted towards his championship campaign. Crews can only nominate to score points in five rounds.
FIA Junior WRC 2023 runner-up Diego Dominguez needed nothing short of victory in South America to tie with Korhonen, having picked up wins in Mexico, Kenya and last month in Greece.
The young Paraguayan looked on track to achieve exactly that, carrying a commanding 3m11.8s lead over Peruvian Eduardo Castro into Sunday’s final four stages, only for his front-right steering to break following the flying finish on the first run of Las Pataguas, leaving him without a wheel.