Reigning World Rally Champion Ott Tänak (Hyundai) starts the final race of the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season in Monza, Italy on Thursday, following a two-month break in the series, with only a very slim chance of retaining his title.
The event is the debut of the course at Monza, more traditionally associated with the Grand Prix circuit which will make up part of the route, which may have the effect of evening-out the field. The event was a late addition following various cancellations in the wake of the pandemic.
"Monza is a new rally and a place where I have not competed before," Tänak 33, from Saaremaa, said, according to ERR's sports portal.
"I have seen some videos, and looking at its nature it seems very different from other rallies," he went on.
Tänak, co-driver and fellow Estonian Martin Järveoja, and all the other competitors will also head for the hills, literally, during the rally, which makes use of mountainous terrain surrounding Monza itself and close to Lake Como, in the foothills of the Italian Alps. The race is the second Italian round on the trot as organizers struggle to get something going given the travel restrictions; Rally Italia Sardegna, at which Tänak finished sixth, took place October 8-11, itself posponed from June.
Hybrid of Grand Prix circuit and wooded mountains
"We're going to have all-day circuit-based speed bumps and then all-day racing in the woods - it's a big challenge," Tänak went on.
The race starts with a 4.64-kilometer speed test at just after 11.00 a.m. Thursday, followed by stage one, "The Monza Legacy", at a little after 3 p.m.
Friday sees five more stages, including the two "Scorpion" (13.43 km) and "Cinturato" (16.22 km) legs, followed by another seven stages on the Saturday.
Sunday's first stage is a re-run of the last stage on the previous day, the 10.31-kilometer Pzero Grand Prix stage, and is crowned by another back-to-back re-run with the 14-kilometer Serraglio leg, the last of which starts at 1.18 p.m.
Tall order to overcome Evans, Ogier, Neuville
Going into the race, Welshman Elfyn Evans looks on course to clinch his maiden title for Toyota, Tänak's team last year, with 111 points. However, six-time world champion and Toyota teammate Sebastien Ogier (France) is only 14 points behind, with ever-the-bridesmaid Thierry Neuville (Belgium, Hyundai) still with a mathematical chance of bagging his first-ever world title after several attempts, on 87 points. Since a maximum 30 points is possible at the event, Tänak could still win all at the last if he picked up all 30, at the expense of everyone else.
Fifth-placed man, Finn Kalle Rovanperä, on 70 points is already out of the hunt.
Tänak can also gain some consolation in the Hyundia i20 even if he doesn't pull off a second title win, since the team is in first place (of four entrants) in the team table, on 208 points, ahead of his old team Toyota on 201.
"In terms of the team, it is important that we do everything in our power to protect the constructors' World Cup title," Tänak said via a Hyundai press release.
"There are still some ends to tie up in the pilots' general classification, and since this is the last stage, it's all or nothing," he went on.
Ten races canceled in 2020
No fewer than 10 rounds of the 2020 season were canceled, all bar one due to the pandemic. The exception was Rally Chile, planned for April, which was called off due to political unrest.
Even last season saw a premature end, that time thanks to forest fires in New South Wales in November, which saw the final Australian round canceled. Tänak already bagged the title one race before, however, at Rally Catalunya, in late October.
Readers with Estonian will be able to follow events on ERR's Sports portal's live blog here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte