The second round of the 2021 WRC season sees the championship move onto the frozen lands of northern Finland. The cancellation of Rally Sweden at the end of 2020 due to Covid19 restrictions necessitated a change on the calendar, the aptly named Arctic Rally Finland taking Sweden’s place, with sub zero temperatures and huge swathes of snow characterising the event, which gained fame due to Mercedes F1 driver Valterri Bottas using the event to keep his skills sharp, prior to the start of the F1 season.
Friday saw the event get underway, although teams had already spent plenty of time testing in advance to get used to the harsh conditions. Toyota, who in pre-event testing had bested the Hyundai’s & Ford’s were seemingly on the back foot on Friday. Ott Tanak snatched the leading in the opening salvo of stages on Friday, opting to take just a single spare tyre, endowing the Estonian with a lighter, quicker car as a result. Tanak would press home his advantage to lead at the close of Friday.
Craig Breen, reprising his part time Hyundai duties lay in second after a string of quick, consistent stage times. Breen ran ahead of the fastest Toyota driven by Kalle Rovanperra, the 20 year old Finn just a whisker behind Breen. Thierry Neuville lay in fourth, not quite able to match the pace of those ahead of him and struggling with understeer in the snow. Elfyn Evans completed the top five, just behind Neuville but the Welshman surprised by the lack of pace compared to the Hyundai’s. Sebastien Ogier meanwhile was all the way down in ninth, the disadvantage of being on the road evidence as Ogier was almost a minute adrift by end of play on Friday.
Oliver Solberg, son of 2003 WRC champion Petter was making his WRC debut in a Hyundai and lay in 8th at the end of the day ahead of Ogier, an impressive showing for Oliver.
There was a sombre mood in the paddock on Saturday, with the news coming that one of rallyings elder statesmen, Hannu Mikkola had sadly lost his battle with cancer, aged 78. Mikkola was famed for winning the 1983 WRC championship title and securing numerous victories during Audi’s halcyon days in Group B competition. Mikkola will be dearly missed as one of the original gladiators of the fearsome Group B rally era.
Saturday would be the longest day of the rally with the most running, and the final stages of the day taking place in the dark. Ott Tanak continued to stretch his lead in the morning, the Estonian revelling in his Hyundai. Kalle Rovanperra remained in hot pursuit in his Toyota, but Rovanperra was still struggling with the balance of his Toyota which may have explained Ogier & Evans lack of pace in the challenging conditions. Thierry Neuville had found his feet in his Hyundai and was closing in on Rovanperra & Tanak after understeer woes dented the Belgian’s challenge on Friday.
Craig Breen slipped back steadily throughout the Saturday, struggling to match the pace of Tanak and the chasing field. Breen would eventually slip back to fourth at the close of the day. Toyota’s performance on the Saturday was interesting, with each driver’s performance bearing little resemblance to one another. Rovanperra’s blistering pace was in stark contrast to Sebastien Ogier, who crashed in the final stage in darkness, burying his Toyota in a snowbank and it taking 20 minutes to dig his way out, it would see Ogier drop out of contention for any meaningful result. Elfyn Evans ran consistently and had pace, but he was in his own words “too cautious” on Saturday afternoon and gave time away where he shouldn’t, which saw Evans end the day in fifth.
Tanak had an uneventful Sunday, but the action was taking place behind as Rovanperra in second desperately battled to hold off a charging Thierry Neuville. Rovanperra just held off Neuville, but more importantly took the Power stage win, netting Rovanperra maximum bonus points. Tanak scored victory, redemption after a challenging Monte Carlo Rally. Kalle Rovanperra took second place while Thierry Neuville made it a double podium for Hyundai. Craig Breen finished in fourth, just missing out on a podium finish after losing time on Saturday to his teammate Neuville. Elfyn Evans rounded out the top five making it a mixed event for Toyota. The highest placed Ford of Teemu Sunninen finished down in eight place after a rather uneventful event, a stark contrast to Monte Carlo where Sunninen crashed out.
Thanks to Sebastien Ogier’s non points finish & Elfyn Evans finishing off the podium, Kalle Rovanperra leads the championship standings from Thierry Neuville, while Sebastien Ogier & Elfyn Evans are tied for 3rd. Ott Tanak rounds out the top 5 in the points.
The next round of the championship will see another new event host the WRC, Rally Croatia on April 22nd-25th. Until next time, stay safe.
Drivers championship standings:
- Kalle Rovanperra – 39 points
- Thierry Neuville – 35 points
- Sebastien Ogier – 31 points
- Elfyn Evans – 31 points
- Ott Tanak – 27 points
- Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT – 88 points
- Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team – 77 points
- M-Sport Ford World Rally Team – 24 points
- Hyundai 2C Competition – 22 points