How M-Sport’s Christmas came early with Tanak WRC signing

After a disappointing 2022 World Rally Championship, M-Sport was given an early Christmas present when it got its deal with Ott Tanak across the line for the 2023 season. It was a move that looked unlikely at one stage, but the team now has its man and hopes this will herald a return to form

How M-Sport’s Christmas came early with Tanak WRC signing

It must feel as if Christmas has come early for M-Sport. Months of negotiations have finally yielded the present they all wanted: the signing of 2019 world rally champion Ott Tanak.

Tanak rejoining the Ford squad that launched his WRC career would have prompted a collective sigh of relief, not only from an M-Sport team looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2022, but from the Estonian’s legions of supporters, the WRC and rally fans across the globe.

But it was a homecoming deal that at times looked unlikely to come to fruition.

“I think there were a good few months where it was like, it is good to hear you are interested, but there is no chance we can make that work and I have no idea how we are going to make that work,” team principal Richard Millener tells Autosport.

For several months, the sight of Tanak, one of the WRC’s most talented stars, and the driver who was among the few to take the fight to runaway 2022 champion Kalle Rovanpera, on the sidelines was a very real prospect.

Tanak faced an uncertain future after electing to leave Hyundai with a year left on his contract. A season littered with reliability issues amid internal management complications left Tanak seeking a new challenge. With limited options at the WRC’s top level, he even admitted to media that a sabbatical was being considered.

After two seasons at Toyota, culminating in the ultimate prize in 2019, and a challenging three seasons at Hyundai, M-Sport, the team where Tanak scored his first podium (Sardinia 2012) and win (Sardinia 2017), seemed an obvious and perfect fit for 2023. The Ford squad was in the market for a superstar to lead its ranks, but putting two and two together isn’t a simple task in the world of motorsport.

Ott Tanak, M-Sport

Ott Tanak, M-Sport

Photo by: M-Sport

Speculation linking Tanak to M-Sport had already begun when it became clear his relationship with Hyundai was beginning to sour before Tanak dropped his departure bombshell after Rally Spain. The nadir of a crumbling partnership came at the Acropolis Rally, when the team elected against issuing orders to switch its drivers to allow Tanak, its best hope for the championship, to claim victory in a comfortable, history-making 1-2-3 for the squad.

While M-Sport’s interest was clear, there were indeed hurdles. The words “drivers such as Ott Tanak come with big price tags” were bandied about by the team as the harsh realities of financing such a move, for an operation which doesn’t boast the budgets of its factory rivals Toyota and Hyundai, became clear. In addition to this, 2022 wasn’t too kind to the Cumbrian outfit. A glorious Sebastien Loeb win in Monte Carlo was the highlight, but a total of three podiums from the eye-catching Ford Puma left the team at the bottom of the WRC pecking order. Ultimately, Craig Breen and M-Sport parted ways, opening up a position for a new team leader.

But if there is one team capable of pulling it all together to sign Tanak, then it is the Malcolm Wilson led M-Sport. The squad has history in this department, having managed to persuade all-time greats Sebastien Ogier and Loeb to join the team in 2017 and 2022 respectively.

"Now we have a driver signed up for a full year who is capable, which gives us a huge opportunity. There are similarities to this year, but it does hark back to 2017 when we signed Ogier and we had an opportunity," Richard Millener

So how did M-Sport pull off the signing of the silly season?

“It is not easy to attract an ex-world champion to the team when we only won one event during the year,” Millener tells Autosport. “You have got to try hard to persuade him that we know what we are doing and this is the right car, package and team to win. And that takes a lot of time.

“I think there is a lot of trust in Malcolm and in us and what we have done. He [Ott] is experienced enough and sensible enough to know what the car is capable of. I think those were the points that allowed him to make the decision to come to us, but it took a long time.

“Often it takes a lot longer to do something like this than people think. There are a lot of complex issues in terms of contracts and various bits that need to be sorted.

Ott Tanak, Martin Jarveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Ott Tanak, Martin Jarveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Vincent Thuillier / Hyundai Motorsport

“It was a bit like the deal with Loeb in 2022. You think 'is it actually physically possible to achieve this with someone like Ott?' 'Are we setting our sights too high?' I think those thoughts came and went a number of times.

“There was a concerted effort between a number of sponsors and M-Sport and Malcolm himself. We can’t do it without the support of Ford, and not necessarily in fully funding Ott, but in ensuring that we are going to have development and we are going to have a push towards keeping the car as competitive as possible.

“All of those things combined is what has allowed us to get there. It is a great team effort.”

It is a feel-good signing reminiscent of joyous scenes when Wilson announced to his staff that then four-time world champion Ogier would be joining the team in 2017. Millener says its effect has already lifted the team after a difficult 2022, but admits the work to ensure its new star signing can challenge for the WRC title starts now.

“It has definitely lifted the mood in the workshop, and the spirit,” Millener adds. “We had a good year this year, there was good spirit with Craig [Breen] and Loeb when they were here. But we knew it would be difficult for Craig to be winning championships and the deal with Loeb was not full-time,” he added.

“But now we have a driver signed up for a full year who is capable, which gives us a huge opportunity. There are similarities to this year, but it does hark back to 2017 when we signed Ogier and we had an opportunity.

“At the same time, it brings its own challenges. We are going to have to up our game and we need to be the best we can be for Ott to have a chance of doing well next year.”

Ott Tanak, Hyundai World Rally Team

Ott Tanak, Hyundai World Rally Team

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

The factors that convinced Tanak to sign for M-Sport

As Millener explained, negotiations played out for several months. But there were several key factors that eventually led to Tanak putting pen to paper.

Key among those was ensuring a championship contender package at his disposal, a demand made clear when pressed about his future at the season-ending Rally Japan.

While Tanak is yet to fully understand his new Puma weapon after a short drive through M-Sport’s Greystoke Forest proving grounds, the 35-year-old says the passion shown by the M-Sport team convinced him that this is the environment where he can challenge for the title.

Aside from the will-they-won’t-they narrative that has now concluded, Tanak joining M-Sport has given the WRC a massive shot in the arm heading into 2023. The WRC without Tanak would have left a hole difficult to fill

“It took quite a bit of time [to reach a deal]," Tanak tells Autosport. “It needed some effort from both sides but in the end we were both really interested to make it happen, so it was a lot of effort.

“Well Toyota and [Kalle] Rovanpera at the moment, they are the two to beat and I would say M-Sport is the place to be. There are people who are really passionate to do it, so I guess this is the place and it should give me the chance to do it [fight for the title].

“I started my career there. I’m not going to say that I will finish my career at M-Sport, but I have been in other places recently and it is interesting to go back. I had good periods and bad periods at M-Sport. I learned my biggest lessons there.

“M-Sport generally is an impressive place and the infrastructure they have is something nobody else has in WRC. They have a quite serious F1-spec infrastructure so this could make them quite strong.”

PLUS: The 'Cumbrian Maranello' where Ford's WRC giants are born

M-Sport's F1-spec Dovenby base with test track

M-Sport's F1-spec Dovenby base with test track

Photo by: M-Sport

Tanak says he is also confident that despite the team’s smaller budget compared to its rivals it will be able to keep up in the development race with Toyota and Hyundai.

“I’m sure there is the potential,” he adds. The team has a great infrastructure and they have strong support from Ford also, so if we all work together and we really want it badly then we can make anything happen.

“For sure all the other big manufacturer teams can move very fast when they get things rolling. I know from other places that the development rate can be very fast as well. I’m sure we can do it.

“There won’t be any limitation on the development side, so that is the most important thing. They want to prove what they are in this sport, so I’m sure it will be an interesting time.”

What Tanak’s move means for the WRC

Aside from the will-they-won’t-they narrative that has now concluded, Tanak joining M-Sport has given the WRC a massive shot in the arm heading into 2023. The WRC without Tanak would have left a hole difficult to fill.

It is much more than simply a team signing a star to lead it back to the world championship glory it last tasted in 2017 and 2018, led by Ogier. The move now means each of the three teams - Toyota, Hyundai and M-Sport - boast full-time drivers that have won rallies and challenged for, if not won, world titles.

It provides the now mouth-watering prospect of another dose of Rovanpera versus Tanak, but with the added bonus of five-time championship runner-up Thierry Neuville leading Hyundai’s charge.

Likewise, a five-way title fight is not beyond the realms of possibility, with Toyota’s two-time championship runner-up Elfyn Evans more than capable of stringing a campaign together, while Hyundai’s Tanak replacement Esapekka Lappi will be hungry to make the most of a second chance of a full-time WRC career.

“I’m a rally fan regardless of what my job is and now every team has at least one top-level driver,” adds Millener. “I would hope that we have an interesting and strong fight all season. If we can have all three teams involved it will be brilliant.”

The scene is now set for a title battle for the ages. Bring on Monte Carlo.

Ott Tanak, Martin Jarveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Ott Tanak, Martin Jarveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

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