MIKKELSEN BREAKS TANAK’S HEART
RALLY POLAND DRAMA
Three weeks ago, Drive DMACK team principal Dick Cormack stepped out of his air conditioned office and into the full glare of World Rally Championship failure. To the wider world, he’d dropped the ball in the worst possible fashion. Except he hadn’t. He had a plan. And last week in Poland that plan came within two stages of paying off with the first non-michelin win since 2010. Understandably, Cormack’s arrival at Rally Italy’s Friday lunchtime media zone was a touch tardy; the firing line’s to be dodged as long as possible.
I asked the team’s communications director Glenn Patterson if he’d done a runner. “No, no,” came the reply. “Dick asked me where the media zone was when I was leaving; I told him to come out of the truck and turn left. He’s gone out of the truck… and turned right!”
Cormack’s arrival coincided with that of Ott Tanak’s Ford Fiesta RS WRC – the one which had left Alghero first thing that morning wearing four of DMACK’S new, hard compound tyres. And come back with slicks. Slicks down to the canvas.
Tanak did what he could to fend off the inevitable questions, but sooner or later a finger had to be pointed. And Cormack was the man with the target.
Dick and I had talked about the new tyres coming before the event and he’d admitted, off the record, this could be on the cards. But it still hurts when you’re standing watching the WRC’S hack pack fumbling with iphones to get a picture of this self-made fiasco.
Once I’d bagged my shot, I sought a word with Cormack.
“It doesn’t look good,” he said, testing the water, “OK, it’s really not good. But… this was never our target event. This tyre wasn’t made for Sardinia. It’s made for Poland.”
Fast forward three weeks and the story couldn’t be more different. DMACK delivered in emphatic fashion. “Long way from Sardinia this,” I offered to Cormack as we watched Tanak’s time go up on the final Saturday morning stage. The Estonian had done the perfect three stages, fastest everywhere, building his lead from four to 18 seconds.
“I told you, didn’t I,” was the reply. “All season, our plan has been to target here and Finland.”
The ‘Tanak to win Poland’ story started 12 months ago, when he could and, had it not been for a handbrake problem, probably would have won in Mikolajki.
The DMACK story, the one which brought us to the point where Michelin’s WRC monopoly was being tested to the extreme, goes back a few years earlier.
Having worked for Pirelli for a long time, Cormack saw the firm’s F1 commitment coming and felt the time was right for a change. He’d thought for some time about setting up on his own. At the end of 2008, he stopped thinking about it.
“I had £85,000 in my Pirelli pension,” he said, “so I cashed that in and went to China to meet some partners in the production of rally tyres. It was a huge gamble. Huge. So many people told me it would never work, I was banging my head against a brick wall, but you just can’t listen to them.”
The first tyres were made through 2009 and DMACK actually made its competitive debut with a Juha Kankkunen win on the 2010 Rally of Portugal Revival.
“Juha ran the tyres on a Ford Escort Mk2,” Cormack said. “That was a good start after I’d spent weeks on end working with the guys in China.”
It was even better when the full WRC season debut came in Sweden, 2011. Martin Semerad won PWRC and Martin Prokop was second Super 2000 home on the all-new DMACK studded tyre.
Nobody at the time knew just how close Cormack was sailing to the wind. “We got the tyres for Sweden just in time for the event,” he said, “like, just in time. They had the studs fitted in Sweden, but there was no time to test. Shakedown was the first time the tyres ran. Luckily, we had a load of snow on that event, so there were no worries about stud retention and the tyres gave good grip. But I’d been absolutely crapping myself before that event.”
The next event was Portugal. The honeymoon was over.
“Our hard tyre was destroyed in 15 kilometres,” he said. “We’d got it completely wrong. These were the days when you were only allowed one [choice] of tyre, so we had to go to Michelin, the teams and the FIA to ask permission to let the drivers run the medium, which was more durable than the hard. It was a complete disaster.”
But DMACK learned and learned very quickly. By the season-ending Rally GB, the tyres had been remade and fitted to a Tanak-driven Fiesta RS WRC, on which they finished sixth.
“That was when things started to turn,” said Cormack.
A step back from World Rally Cars reduced the pressure and allowed the firm to flourish, but this year it was time for a full attack with Tanak, a factory-spec Fiesta and a full season for the Drive DMACK World Rally Team.
Tanak’s name on a DMACK contract was good news, but it was another name on another contract that really signaled the firm’s intention.
After three decades at Pirelli, Fiorenzo Brivio followed Cormack from Milan to DMACK’S Carlisle base. Brivio has been there and seen it all in rallying, from cooking stagespecific compounds for Lancia’s Delta S4 to masterminding win after WRC win for the Italian firm.
“We’d achieved a lot ourselves,” said Cormack, “we’d taken the tyres pretty much as far as we could, bringing production out of China into the UK in a deal to use Cooper’s factory. What we needed was something to send a signal to manufacturers and get us to that next level. Brivio did that.”
DMACK’S goal remains a simple one: to supply a world championship manufacturer. Last week was a big step in that direction.
Back to the top of the story, how did the tyre that failed so catastrophically in Sardinia work so well in similar heat in Poland?
Cormack explained: “We knew we couldn’t bring a tyre to the market which would work on every [gravel] round of the championship, we’re not quite there yet. We had a new tyre coming for Portugal and with Fiore’s experience, our experience and the chance to work with the Cooper engineers, we thought this was possible.”
The surfaces, the temperatures, the required operating range for the tyres were all worked on and DMACK’S chemists went to work.
“The chemical compounding side of the operation is a real black art,” said Cormack. “Basically, you look for the compromise between compound and construction. We could have gone for a heavy construction which would have worked in Sardinia, we wouldn’t have any punctures or wear issues because of the strength of the tyre, but it would be slow. And because of the stiffness in the sidewall, it wouldn’t offer the same traction; flexibility is reduced and that takes some of the lateral grip.
“We went in the middle. There were a lot of questions here when Ott took the hard tyre on Saturday morning when Michelin ran softs. But calling ours a hard is a bit of a misnomer: our hard is just a little bit harder than the Michelin soft. And our soft is a lot softer – which is how we were so confident on Sunday morning. And we know this tyre will be phenomenal if we have typical Rally GB conditions in Wales.
“But, like I say, so much of this is down to experience of knowing what compound and construction will work in what conditions and Fiore knows all about that.”
By Saturday night, Tanak had widened the gap past the 20-second mark. Dreams were starting to be dreamt.
The rain was coming, that much we knew, but DMACK had it covered. If it did rain, the soft would offer more grip than the French equivalent. And if temperatures stayed north of the 30 degree mark with the sun high in the sky… well, bolt on the hards and repeat Saturday morning’s clean sweep.
By daybreak, the dark, threatening clouds were delivering serious amounts of rain.
No worries. Tanak went out, did two stages and came back to service, Granted, he’d shipped some time to the secondplaced Andreas Mikkelsen, but the Fiesta was running too hard. Softened off with four fresh softs, it was sent back out to bring it home.
Dropping three seconds at the first split in the penultimate stage wasn’t good. And then not good became total disaster in just a matter of minutes. The front-right had been knocked off the rim by one of the ridiculously deep ruts that had been dug into the season’s softest stages. The lead was gone. Replaced by numbness.
Fiesta with the
Had anybody dropped the pin from the grenade the sport had cruelly lobbed into this corner of the service park, it would have been heard for miles. DMACK and M-sport folk sat and stared, barely able to take in what had just happened.
The Fiesta’s first win in three and a half years had been stolen.
Understandably, Tanak was in no mood to talk at the end of the stage. It didn’t really matter. An explanation wasn’t going to change anything.
With one stage to go, he was second. Ordinarily this would have been cause for mass celebration for the Estonian fans camped outside. Now though, with the rain diluting the tears, runner-up meant nothing.
But still, resolutely, they stood and waited for Tanak and co-driver Raigo Molder. Their sodden, limp flags capturing the mood as well as anything.
Next door, the mood had lifted considerably. For the second time, Mikkelsen scored victory at the last gasp.
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