Rain Kooli: Former rally aces, not the Finnish media, critical of Ott Tänak
Following news that Estonia's star World Rally Championship driver Ott Tänak will not be returning to drive for Hyundai next season, speculation is rife as to where next for the 2019 drivers' champion, ERR's Finland correspondent Rain Kooli reports.
Tänak's alleged personality has also been under scrutiny in the Finnish media, Kooli adds, and may or may not have affected how things have panned out so far.
Kooli made his remarks following news that Tänak would not be driving for Hyundai, a team which he joined in late 2019, next year. Following the exit of Citroen, also in 2019, there are only two other top-flight WRC teams, namely Toyota and M-Sport Ford, and the Estonian has driven for both of these teams during his career, winning the world title with Toyota.
Speaking to Vikerraadio show "Spordipühapäev" on Sunday, Kooli said that: "First things first, I would like to stress that I am not a sports journalist, still less a rally journalist, but I am nonetheless a big sports fan, so of course the biggest names from the rally world and the most important events stand out."
"Ott Tänak's name in particular, simply because there are not many Estonian world champions, unlike in Finland, where there are more world champions in rallying alone than world championship titles for the country's ice hockey team," he went on.
"Rallying, first and foremost, is a national sport for Finns. The same can be said for ice hockey. For this reason, Finns have a very 'un-Finnish', emotional attitude to rallying and everything related to it, one could even say."
"Naturally, Ott Tänak's decision not to continue at Hyundai has also been the main news in the Finnish rally sections," Kooli added.
"Everything related to this: What he will do next, how it will naturally affect the positions of the Finns, whether someone will lose their place somewhere else in a team. Essentially, in Finland, all the days following the end of the Catalunya rally (the weekend before last – ed.) has seen a huge amount written about it."
Last week, pieces of information reached the Estonian media regarding how the Finnish media described Ott Tänak as arrogant, with behavior which is not acceptable. Is this simply cherry picking, or are the northern neighbors really unable to to appreciate our world champion, Kooli was asked.
"If I take a look at the coverage of Ott Tänak over the long perspective, it has generally been neutral. I would say that Ott Tänak has been portrayed in the media for many years primarily in terms of statistics, plus what Ott himself has said somewhere in interviews has also been conveyed." Kooli continued.
"However, there are, of course, two big events during Ott Tänak's career. One is leaving Toyota in 2019, and the other is, now, leaving Hyundai. Naturally there will be much more passionately headlined news surrounding these things."
"Ott Tänak's character traits have come to the fore especially in connection with the question of whether he has any way back to the Toyota team. This is because, three years ago, when he left that team... this information is now appearing in all coverage as a general context, namely, that he did not leave very amicably . It has been repeated in many news reports that there were conflicts with some team members. It is true, for example, that the MTV3 news channel has reported that the majority of, or essentially all of, the people who Ott Tänak had the biggest problems with at Toyota have already left the team," Kooli went on.
"Certainly, no names have been mentioned, but this kind of snippet of information has come through, and at this point a distinction must also be made between what is media coverage and what is not. I have not myself seen any editorial comments or opinion pieces that were highly critical of Tänak."
"Perhaps the most vociferous text came from an interview with former WRC champion Marcus Grönholm (who won in 2000 and 2002 and was in fact Finland's last champion until this season – ed.) published in [Finnish dailies] Ilta-Sanomat and Helsingin Sanomat on October 26. Grönholm is a relatively straightforward man, and here, he still hits hard," Kooli argued.
"First of all, Grönholm didn't think it very likely that Ott Tänak would end his career now, at a time when we are considering the future. However, speculations started immediately, where he would go to. One possibility was Ford, ie. M-Sport, but essentially Grönholm says this in this interview that Ford might not take Tänak back very willingly and suggests that there were inconsistencies between 2011 and 2017, when Ott drove for the team."
"But then he suggests that Tänak's behavior is somehow a one-off and then directly strikes by saying Ott is not, in all honesty, a very nice character."
"But then he doesn't elaborate further, instead indicating that [Tänak] is a sportsperson who has a tough character, meaning Ford, or M-Sport, won't necessarily miss him that much," Kooli continued.
"More accurately, he says that Malcolm Wilson, an M-Sport Ford driver, may also not be longing to be back. At the same time, he says that M-Sport still requires a star driver," Kooli continued.
"The second question is, of course, put to Grönholm in connection with a return to Toyota, but then he blurts out that Tänak will definitely not get a seat again with Toyota right away, that this would be completely unthinkable, that it would destroy the dynamics of this team and the harmony that exists there now. So [Grönholm] basically rolls his eyes and shakes his head at it."
Kalle Rovanperä's only serious competitor, if they have equally good cars, is Ott Tänak, is also being talked about. Could it be so simple, that since Ott Tänak is the biggest competitor for their new world champion and superstar (Rovanperä clinched his maiden WRC title in New Zealand at the beginning of the month – ed.), it is understandable that perhaps they are looking a little for moments that don't show Ott Tänak in the best light, Vikkeraadio asked Kooli.
"Even among the team leaders, for example, we don't notice such a desire, because Jari-Matti Latvala (Latvala, a former driver, replaced Tommi Mäkinen as Toyota director in 2021 – ed.), who is currently heading the Toyota team, has also been asked a lot about Tänak, but he has remained very reserved; he has not said, for example, that Tänak has no the opportunity to come back here. He has remained relatively neutral in his personal assessments," Kooli went on.
"Again, Marcus Grönholm seems to have no reason to feel any kind of competition. I have a feeling that everyone who has seen the film made by Ott Tänak has also caught a glimpse of Ott's different sides, but maybe things are really amplified here in the Finnish media. For example, I don't know upon what basis Marcus Grönholm makes his statement that Ott Tänak is not a very pleasant character, whether he has heard anything, whether he has seen anything. So far as I know, he certainly hasn't come into contact with Ott very much," Kooli went on.
"He and Rovanperä are together the two top drivers of the present time; Jari-Matti Latvala also says so. However, here the speculations, are rather more yes, better to stay on the level of considering whether it is a good idea to have all the hardest workers together in the one team. What would that mean for rallying, and how interesting would it ultimately be?"
Rain Kooli was talking to Vikerraadio.
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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Maarja Värv