Rallying behind the Iron Curtain: Estonia’s Cold War heroes

The makers of Ott Tänak - The Movie have come up with another brilliant big screen hit. Legends of the Winding Roads charts Estonian rallying from a different era.


Anybody out there thinking they have it tough getting started in rallying, watch this movie. Everything’s easier when you’re not looking out for the men in leather jackets.

Legends of the Winding Roads is the work of genius producer Eero Nõgene. It’s a film which takes you back to the 1980s for a story of Group B cars. But this one has very little  – nothing in fact – in common with any Group B film you’ve watched before.

This is about rallying behind the Iron Curtain, a time when glasnost was still frowned upon and a nation’s fastest rally cars were made out of defunct aeroplane propellors and the bolts from rockets.

Yes, actual rockets made in Leningrad.

Let’s go back, back in the USSR.

Ott Tänak with Vello Õunpuu's Lada VFTS and the winning Toyota Yaris WRC in his garage

Just as he did in his film-producing debut – Ott Tänak – The Movie – Nõgene finds exactly the right voices to narrate a fascinating period of time in the sport’s history. Linking the voices, young and old, is the wonderful writing of Kaidi Klein and direction from Tarvo Mölder.

There’s nothing new in looking backwards, it’s a fairly popular pastime here at DirtFish, but looking backwards and over the top of the Iron Curtain breaks new ground. This is a fascinating insight into the struggles of life in the Soviet era, a time when overseas competition was very much overseen by apparently unseen KGB agents.

By men in leather jackets.

The film tells the story through heroes like Ilmar Raissar, Hardi Mets, Vallo Soots and the now sadly departed Vello Õunpuu. In just over two hours, Legends of the Winding Roads plots a course from the taxi ranks of Tallinn and Tartu through uphill races in Gaz 51 trucks or ancient Volgas to the 1000 Lakes Rally in Group B Ladas.

Restoration of Ilmar Raissare Lada VFTS, one of the mechanics is Raissar himself (standing right)

The official USSR rally team was the Toyota Gazoo Racing of its time. At least on the eastern side of the Curtain. And the Lada VFTS was the GR Yaris Rally1. As Klein so rightly put it, for one-sixth of the world, those were the fastest rally cars around. And the drivers were held up like heroes.

A mechanic at the time, Mart Kuldorg reflected: “Estonian drivers were like cosmonauts.”

And Estonian drivers were prevalent in the USSR rally team, affording them the opportunity to go abroad to compete – providing their visa was granted. And their faces fitted with the KGB.

Õunpuu completed all the necessary paperwork to compete in Sweden, but his passport was lost for three years in succession. Another crew was sent in place of him and his co-driver. As soon as the cars had headed west for Karlstad, his passport turned up.

“Later,” said Õunpuu, “we found out their coach was a KGB man.”

We found out their coach was a KGB man. Vello Õunpuu

There were times when the numbers of Estonian drivers became something of a concern for Russian drivers. The USSR team officials weren’t worried – their prediction that Estonia would turn on itself played out.

Mets said: “Everything went swimmingly until we started winning. One morning we were preparing for a foreign race and we were not allowed out. Somebody had made a fictitious complaint that me and my brother wanted to escape. Someone stabbed us in the back. It was easy to get rid of a rival, just say they planned to flee…”

It’s hard to believe this was going on just over 30 years ago.

The film brings those days – and those Ladas – back to life. Building Group B cars wasn’t easy when commercial transactions with the capitalist west were… complicated. But there was always a way. And sometimes the way was with smoked chicken or sausage; a bottle of vodka here or there.

That’s how the cars ended up with valve plates, hubs and all sorts of other parts made from re-worked aluminium props from Russian military planes.

When an FIA headed to Russia to homologate the necessary 200 cars into Group B, the French official found only 20 examples of the VFTS. Where, he questioned  – not unreasonably, were the rest?

“Factory. Tolyatti.” He was told.

Tolyatti being the factory in Siberia. He was welcome to go in search of the missing 180 Ladas.

No need. The paperwork was signed. The full quota of 200 quite probably never made.

It was all about contacts.

And heroes.

As you would expect, modern day Estonian heroes like Makko Märtin and Ott Tänak bring the story up to date. Both men have taken the car that once adorned their bedroom wall and put it in their garage.

For Märtin, it’s Raissar’s car.

“If I had to deal with any product from the Soviet Union this would be the only one,” said Märtin. “I remember [the car] from many childhood, but another poster would have been easier to get!

“For me, it had to be Ilmar Raissar’s car in Harju KEK livery.”

Harju KEK was the crack competition preparation team of the time.

For Tänak, it was Õunpuu.

“I started rallying because my father was rallying,” said the 2019 world champion. “Why did my father start? Because of Vello. It’s all connected. This car has great emotional value. This  Lada spoke to me.”

And this film speaks brilliantly of a bygone era. For a generation, cold wars and Iron Curtains mean little. If you’re after a history lesson look no further than the work of Eero Nõgene.

Watch the movie worldwide right now on ladamovie.com

Words:David Evans