Ott Tänak put in another impressive performance on the final round of the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) today as Rally de España progressed onto Tarmac.
Never out of the top-five on all six stages, the Estonian climbed to fourth overall and now lies tantalisingly close to securing M-Sport Sport Ford World Rally Team’s fourth podium finish of the year.
Albeit a different task from the mud-strewn gravel that epitomised yesterday’s action, the crews were still put to the test as they contended with damp conditions making the polished Tarmac treacherously slippery as well as one of the longest and most daunting stages in the championship – the 45.97 km El Priorat.
Getting back into the rhythm of competing on asphalt, Tänak and co-driver Kuldar Sikk began the day with the task of hunting down Mikko Hirvonen in fourth.
Setting a good pace over the first stage (SS7), the pairing kept in touch with their rival to hold the gap at just over eight seconds.
Making a tactical decision on the first pass of El Priorat (SS8), the Estonian opted to fit his Ford Fiesta RS WRC with a mix of Michelin’s soft and hard compound tyres – softs on the front and hards on the rear.
Unfortunately the gamble to gain an advantage failed to pay dividends. But thanks to the pairing’s poise and control, they kept the time loss to a minimum – keeping Hirvonen in reach with a gap of 24.7 seconds which they were able to maintain over the morning’s final stage.
Happy with the performance of his Fiesta, Tänak was the man on the move over the afternoon loop. Matching the times of the pacesetters, a string of impressive performances saw the youngster leap-frog former rally-leader Mads Østberg for fourth.
Notching up yet another stage win through the final test (SS12), the Estonian slashed Hirvonen’s lead and now lies just 14.7 seconds adrift of his second consecutive podium with 93.94 km remaining on tomorrow’s final day of competition.
Elsewhere however, with an ear infection continuing to cause John Powell discomfort, he and co-driver Michael Fennell were forced to retire for the day at the close of SS7.
With his Ford Fiesta RS WRC ready and waiting, the Caribbean driver could yet be back to entertain the crowds on the final day of competition tomorrow – health dependent.
Ott Tänak (4th) said: “It has been a very good afternoon – almost perfect. We touched a small rock on the first stage [SS9] and damaged the wheel a little, but other than that there were no dramas.
The more we drive, the feeling just gets better and better and I think we have a really good feeling right now.
“I have tried to catch Mikko [Hirvonen] three or four times already this year, and it never seems to end well! I think we are comfortable with our own pace at the moment – and it also seems to be quite fast – so we just need to carry on like this and see what tomorrow will bring.”
John Powell (Rally 2) said: “I guess I should have had my lucky egg with me like the guys from Cool Runnings!
“After speaking with M-Sport’s physio, it seems I have an ear infection that I could have had for some time – but that only became an issue on the longer stages where your body is put under more stress.
“We’ll run some tests when I get home, but this is by no means my last showing in the WRC and I hope to be back next year. This is what movies are made of – you get knocked back, but you come back stronger which is what we intend to do.
“Despite being unable to compete as I would have liked, this has been a fantastic experience and I have met so many nice people. Everyone has been so welcoming: the teams, the drivers, Malcolm [Wilson], everybody.
M-Sport is like a family and I am honoured that they have welcomed me and my family into their own.
“As I said, we have been made to feel so welcome by everyone in the championship and we will try to come back and make the Caribbean proud next year.”