For the first time in 16 seasons, the World Rally Champion is not a Frenchman called Sebastien. The man to break the dominance of Messieurs Loeb and Ogier is Ott Tanak, who became Estonia’s first world champion in motorsport when he sealed the 2019 WRC title in Spain with one round still to go.
Driving for Toyota, Tanak has established himself as the fastest driver in the WRC, claiming six wins so far this year in a wide variety of terrain, including the snow of Sweden, fast gravel roads of Finland, asphalt in Germany and muddy tracks of Wales Rally GB.
The way in which he clinched the championship in Spain – by setting the fastest time in the decisive rally-ending power stage – is typical of Tanak’s perhaps unrivalled ability to push all the way to the limit in pursuit of the fastest time. But it hasn’t always been this way…
From humble beginnings on the Estonian island of Saaremaa, Tanak’s road to the top of the rallying world has had more rises and falls than a crest-filled stage of Rally Finland. When he first started out in a Volkswagen Golf MkII, his first proper rally lasted just four kilometres before he crashed out. But by the age of 21, he was Estonian champion under the guidance of Estonia’s first rallying hero, Markko Martin.
His first big break into the WRC though came from the Pirelli Star Driver programme. Tanak won a shootout in Austria against some of the best young rally drivers in Europe to earn a six-round programme in the 2010 WRC. In his first event in his bright yellow Pirelli-backed Mitsubishi Evo X in Turkey, he was running inside the overall top 10 when he rolled on the final morning.
Undeterred, he would go on to win the Production category in Finland and Britain later that year. Challenging for the Super 2000 title the following season earned Tanak his first chance at the top level with Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport team for 2013, but he would be dropped at the end of the season. Two years later he was welcomed back, only to be dropped again after a number of crashes: most famously, when his car plunged into a Mexican lake.
Tanak got his third chance with M-Sport’s factory team in 2017 and, paired with Ogier, made the most of it by displaying a new-found maturity. He took a long-awaited first victory in Sardinia and scored another in Germany: winning form that he would take to Toyota the following year.
After the streak of Loeb and Ogier, Tanak is the first Pirelli Star Driver to go on to become WRC champion, but not the only successful graduate. Hayden Paddon was part of the same class of 2010 as Tanak (selected from the Asia Pacific region) and has also won a round of the WRC, as well as claiming a number of podium finishes.
In 2011, Craig Breen won the WRC Academy series as a Pirelli Star Driver and also gone on to stand on the podium at the highest level. The same goes for Elfyn Evans, Breen’s successor as champion in the Pirelli-equipped WRC Academy.
Even Ogier was a Junior WRC champion with Pirelli tyres back in 2008, and it’s through the Junior WRC where Pirelli’s commitment to developing young rallying talent continues today. The 2019 title-winner is the Spaniard Jan Solans, who has received support from his countryman Carlos Sainz, a two-time world rally champion with Pirelli. Solans’ prize is a Ford Fiesta R5 and Pirelli tyre package to take the next step in his career. Tanak is proof that the sky is the limit.
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