Hailing from Kärla Parish, Saaremaa, Tänak picked up his affinity for motor racing from his father Ivar who was a firefighter and took up rallying during the 80s and 90s as a hobby, starting with go-karts during his childhood and eventually transitioning to rallying. After a series of rallies and rallysprint races in the early 2000s, initially driving a series of jalopies one of them being a rather cantankerous Volkswagen Golf, Tänak, racing under Markko Märtin's tutelage, made his WRC debut in 2009 on the 2009 Rally de Portugal, finishing 20th overall, and later won the European Pirelli Star Driver shootout held in Austria. He eventually signed a five-year contract with Ford, scoring his first points in the 2011 Rally Mexico. Tanak's career under Ford was a mixed bag, leaving Ford in 2012 (and effectively retiring from the WRC circuit for a period) and managing his own local team. He did however return to WRC in 2014 under the WRC-2 support category, and reunited with M-Sport in 2015 where he gained notoriety for the "Titanak" incident in which his Ford Fiesta went off-course and into a reservoir. Incredibly, the car was brought back to life and Tänak's escape went viral, being picked up by mainstream news organisations.
Tänak signed a two-year contract with Toyota in 2018, racing alongside teammates Jari-Matti Latvala and Esapekka Lappi. To the surprise of many, he was able to score two podiums in Monte Carlo and Corsica respectively, and pulled off a Curb-Stomp Battle in Argentina where he led the rally by over 46 seconds despite a half-spin that would've cost him the rally. He repeated this success in Rally Finland where he fiercely contested the rally with Norway's Mads Ostberg, in Rallye Deutschland in which a tyre puncture sustained by Sebastien Ogier gave him an opportunity to further extend his lead, and in Rally Turkey where what appeared to be a wacky race culminating in more than a dozen competitors retiring or getting wrecked in the gruelling stages played in his favour and allowed him to rise up from the championship standings, giving Ogier and Neuville a run for their money. This winning streak wasn't to last though, as punctures and collisions in Wales, Spain and Australia kept him from dethroning Ogier, though he did get accolades for his tenacity and penchant for breakneck speed.
He didn't disappoint his fans in 2019, however, when he claimed a third-place podium in Monte Carlo, and for the first time in his career, led the driver's championship standings through his victory in Sweden; while this lead was short-lived as he suffered setbacks in Corsica and Argentina, his victory in the inaugural Rally Chile more than made up for it, also snatching all five Power Stage points in the process, demoting rival Thierry Neuville to third (following a devastating accident on part of Neuville) and putting Tänak once again in striking distance to Ogier. Despite Tänak having failed to win Italy and Turkey, he scored four more wins in Portugal, Finland, Germany and Wales, which gave him a significant points lead over Ogier and Neuville—Ogier's misfortune by way of a power steering issue with his Citröen eased the pressure on the Estonian, who secured his maiden championship crown after a second-place finish (plus a Power Stage win with five bonus points) in Rally Catalunya, making him the first Estonian to win a WRC driver's titlenote and the first non-French driver's champion since Petter Solberg in 2003. Tänak and his (now-former) Toyota teammates were to defend their manufacturer's championship title in Australia, but this has sadly been shelved when a series of bushfires which have claimed a dozen lives and razed millions worth of property took place around the rally venue. Hyundai thus won the manufacturer's crown by default, their first since joining the championship, though given the circumstances, whatever celebration they would've had was somewhat muted.
Days after his championship win, Tänak announced that he will no longer be involved with Toyota and will switch sides with rival manufacturer Hyundai, thereby making him teammates with Neuville, Dani Sordo and veteran driver Sebastien Loeb. Not everyone is pleased with the move, but given the rumoured issues Tänak had with Toyota's management and the Yaris' lingering reliability problems, it isn't surprising for those in the rallying scene to know about the move. Ironically enough, Ogier went on to sign up for a one-time contract with Toyota in Tänak's place, sharing the roster of former Ford stablemate Elfyn Evans and WRC newcomer Kalle Rovanperanote .
After a two-year stint with Hyundai, Tänak made a homecoming to Ford M-Sport in 2023, his first drive for Malcolm Wilson's team since 2017. Around that time it was revealed that his wife Janika was diagnosed with breast cancer (hence accounting for Tänak's absence from Rally Monza in 2021, citing "family issues"); Tänak considered taking a sabbatical from rallying to tend to Janika's needs but his wife urged him to continue, leading to his victory in the 2023 Rally Sweden.
A feature-length documentary chronicling his life and career entitled Ott Tänak: The Movie was announced in December 2018, and was released in Estonia in April 11, 2019, with an international release on October 1, 2019. Tänak also appeared in the 2023 sports documentary Legends of the Winding Road (Estonian: Kurvilise tee legendid), a film chronicling the careers of four Estonian rally drivers who competed for the USSR Rally Team in the 1980s.
Tropes associated with Tänak:
- A Dog Named "Dog": Ott used to carry along a plush duck good-luck charm whom he affectionately named, well, Duck. Though he eventually parted ways with her especially after his Ford Fiesta foundered at a Mexican reservoir in 2015.
- Badass Driver: He's said to have rarely, if ever, lifted his foot off the accelerator, which accounts for why he once set a speed record in Sweden. Tänak further sealed his reputation when he won his maiden driver's title in 2019.
- Beware the Quiet Ones: Tänak may be quite laconic, but he's more than determined to let himself be known by his rivals through his rallying.
- Determinator: Give him enough time and breathing room, and he wouldn't hesitate to floor his way through a special stage, which he handily did in the 2018 Rally Argentina, and repeated in Finland and Germany respectively.
- Drives Like Crazy: So crazy that his speed record in the 2017 Rally Sweden accounted for why the organisers cancelled one of the special stages for said event, much to the dismay of fans.
- Everybody Hates Mathematics: In the documentary, a teacher at the school where Tänak attended recalled how the future rally driver dreaded the subject. The teacher mentioned how she stressed the importance of mathematics in the career Tänak is taking.
- Friendly Rivalry: Especially with Sebastién Ogier of whom he's good friends with despite their fierce rivalry in the WRC. This is proven when Ogier cheered up a livid and despondent Tänak after the latter lost to Andreas Mikkelsen in the 2016 Rally Poland, and when Tänak pulled over for a bit to check on Ogier who had to change a damaged wheel in his Fiesta.
- Red Baron: He gained the nickname "Titänak" after he and his then co-driver Raigo Mõlder managed to escape unscathed when their Ford Fiesta dove into a reservoir in Mexico. But unlike the White Star Line vessel, Tänak's Fiesta was raised intact and somehow got repaired successfully for the next stage despite being submerged for ten hours. Tänak's cool, reserved demeanour has also earned him the nickname the "Ice Man" of the WRC. Colour commentator Becs Williams likened Tänak's sinister-looking, Agent 47-esque facial expression to those of "a serial killer".
- The Stoic: Being Estonian, he is more or less prone to this. He did have his moments of frustration and despair at times, with commentators recalling how he'd run off to a corner and weep in despondence, but his cool and collected demeanour allowed him to finish first in Turkey despite not having the speed he wanted, all while his rivals fall by the wayside left and right.
- Not So Stoic: As mentioned above, he did express frustration and despair at some points during his career, and has been seen showing his funny side off-track, particularly when he and his new co-workers at Hyundai did a parodic promo video for their team.
- Token Minority: He is currently the only Estonian actively competing at the top level World Rally Championship, and so far the first Estonian World Rally Champion.