Source: Red Bull Content Pool
Source: Red Bull Content Pool

When world champions go back and forth

Motorsports OlyBet 13.10.2023

In 2024, Ott Tänak will drive for Hyundai once again. The 2019 World Rally Champion first joined the Korean manufacturer just after winning his maiden title but has not been able to reach the same heights again. Is there sufficient reason to believe this time will be different?

Tänak already tried the romantic option, returning to M-Sport after three seasons with Hyundai. In 2011, he had his first WRC sniff with Ford; in 2017, alongside Sebastien Ogier, Tänak won his first rallies and reached superstardom. But a return in 2023 felt different. After the initial promise, it became clear that M-Sport is not capable of keeping up with factory teams. The car was barely competitive.

What would have changed going into 2024? Sure, more could be changed due to homologation rules, but it was difficult to envisage M-Sport catching up. Tänak, at 35 years old, may feel his window is closing. But where could he go? Toyota, the team Tänak won his sole world championship with, now employs Kalle Rovanperä – a 23-year-old on his way to a second straight drivers’ title.

That left only Hyundai, but after a damaging exit just 12 months earlier, it looked quite unlikely. In a way, Rovanperä was the key. With Thierry Neuville coming up short for the umpteenth time, Hyundai felt they needed another A-lister to get their hands on the titles. Make no mistake, Tänak was not their first choice – that was Rovanperä himself, but the Finn had no reason to ditch Toyota.

As for Tänak’s logic, this is a different Hyundai team with new boss Cyril Abiteboul and technical director Francois-Xavier Demaison now on board. Both sides felt it could work out. “With the new structure of the team, we have all the tools needed,” Tänak said via the press announcement.

We shall see if it works out as hoped. Returns often do not – much like with Tänak and M-Sport in 2023, Ogier rejoined his first employer Citroen in 2019 only to curse them openly and repeatedly. After just a year, he broke his contract and the team pulled out altogether.

Out of the 21 World Rally Champions in history, who else has gone back at some point, and what have been the results? Well, few do that. Sebastien Loeb won his nine titles with Citroen and has only represented other manufacturers as a bit-part driver. Tommi Mäkinen was a Mitsubishi man throughout his successes until ending his career with Subaru. Marcus Grönholm went from Toyota to Peugeot to Ford, while Colin McRae did likewise for Subaru, Ford, Citroen, and Škoda.

Honourable mentions

The 2003 champion Petter Solberg jumped around a bit. After winning the rally crown in Norway, he was approached by Malcolm Wilson to join Ford with a three-year contract, but his WRC debut season in 1999 persuaded Subaru to swoop in. After eight years (and a title) with the Japanese, the team withdrew; Solberg continued in a privateer Citroen until rejoining Ford for his last WRC season in 2012.

Ari Vatanen won his sole championship in 1981 with Ford, the team he turned professional with. The Finn went on to race for Opel, Peugeot, Mitsubishi, and Subaru until returning to Ford for selected events late in his career.

Viewed by many as the best driver of the 20th century, Walter Röhrl made his WRC debut for Opel before leaving for Fiat, for whom he won a title in 1980. In 1982, he rejoined Opel and won his second drivers’ crown, remarkably in a rear-wheel drive Ascona against more competitive four-wheelers.

But now for the three world champions who stand out – and one who Tänak could emulate.

Richard Burns – Subaru

While the late Englishman made his WRC debut with Peugeot and later returned, he is mostly remembered for his heroics in a Subaru. His first stint between 1993 and 1995 was more of an apprenticeship, but after winning his first WRC events at Mitsubishi between 1996 and 1998, Subaru came calling again.

After getting close in 1999 and 2000, Burns finally became World Rally Champion in 2001 only to leave for Peugeot after the season. Much like Tänak and Hyundai, the move did not work out for the reigning champ, and after two winless seasons, Burns was set to rejoin Subaru for the third time in 2004.

Unfortunately, a blackout suffered before the final round of 2003 was caused by a malignant brain tumour. The following treatment and surgery were successful, but the tumour recurred and on November 25th, 2005, Burns died, aged just 34.

Carlos Sainz – Toyota

The 196 WRC starts by Sainz were a record until very recently, so it should come as no surprise that the Spaniard raced for different teams (and, also, in different eras). He got his first chance at Ford in 1987, a team he returned to for 1996-1997 and then again for 2000-2002. Sainz also did stints for Lancia (1993), Subaru (1994-1995), and Citroen (2003-2005).

But his biggest successes came at Toyota, whom he joined in 1989. After a season of learning in the Celica, he became the champion in 1990 by winning four rallies and then repeated the feat in 1992 before leaving due to sponsorship issues. Between 1990 and 1992, he won a total of 13 rallies.

Sainz returned to Toyota for a second stint in 1998 and came within 300 meters of winning his third drivers’ crown until a mechanical issue handed the title to Tommi Mäkinen. Sainz retired a two-time champion, unable to add to his initial successes despite notching half of his 26 rally wins after the 1992 season.

Juha Kankkunen – Lancia and Toyota

Once the youngest-ever champion, the first to defend his title, the first to win four titles, and the first to win with three manufacturers, Kankkunen had a colourful career, to say the least. He raced for six different factory teams while doing two stints for Lancia and three for Toyota. He rose to prominence for the Japanese between 1983 and 1985.

The Flying Finn then jumped ship to Peugeot and duly won his first title in the 205, but with Group B banned from 1987, Peugeot withdrew abruptly. Kankkunen joined Lancia and won his second title, but left after a year as he felt the Italian team favours local driver Miki Biasion. He jumped to Toyota briefly and then returned to Lancia in 1990, winning his third crown in 1991.

This is where Kankkunen’s path meets Tänak’s – fresh off a championship season with another team, the 1988-1989 stint at Toyota was not as successful as hoped. But he returned to the Japanese manufacturer in 1993 and won another championship, much like Tänak is hoping to do with Hyundai.

As for Tänak? Who knows what the future brings.


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