Rally Serras de Fafe provided a spectacular opening to 2023’s chapter of the European Rally Championship.
It had it all; tight battles, staunch comebacks up the field, and some tricky weather conditions made for plenty of talking points come the end of the weekend.
But there was one which tugs at the heart strings a little. A ‘what could have been’ story.
Step forward Mikko Heikkilä.
Where do you even start? He’d put up a valiant effort throughout the rally, and at one point on Sunday morning looked on course to win as he grew his lead to 12.6 seconds after the first pass of Santa Quitéria.
But both passes of Lameirinha ultimately proved to be his undoing as he lost 9.7s of his lead on the morning stage, before the final hammer blow in the afternoon: a puncture on the home stretch.
Heikkilä, understandably, was gutted.
“I think even crying doesn’t help,” he said at the stage end.
But let’s move quickly away from the negatives and focus on what matters most: the overwhelming positives.
At the start of the weekend, all the talk was about all the big names that had rolled into town: Hayden Paddon, Mads Østberg and Craig Breen to name a few.
I for one was slightly taken aback when Heikkilä emerged as the top gun come Saturday evening.
I won’t be surprised in the future, that’s certain.
The Škoda driver looked more than composed behind the wheel of his Fabia Rally2 evo, and aside from losing time on the 13th stage, his performance was faultless.
Even Paddon, who found out about Heikkilä’s stoppage in the post-stage interview, was in a fair amount of disbelief to learn that the victory was his, given the drive his rival had put in across the weekend.
“It would’ve been good to have a battle, it’s been a seriously tight weekend between Mads and Heikkilä as well,” he said.
“We had to push in here and wanted to try and overcome those 2.8s, whether it would have been enough, I don’t know.”
Getting that stamp of approval from a World Rally Championship event winner isn’t a bad accolade to have to start off the year – particularly when Rally Serras de Fafe was just Heikkilä’s third ERC start at the beginning of his first ERC season.
His second start brought a podium finish in last year’s Rally Liepāja, so fighting for the win and very nearly getting it shows things are moving swiftly for last year’s Finnish national champion.
Losing the victory is painful but shouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, rallying is like that sometimes. What does matter is how you bounce back, and after the attitude Heikkilä showed just moments after a first ERC win was cruelly ripped away, there’s no doubt he’ll come back even stronger.
Heikkilä was quick to switch from talking about the win being taken from his grasp to the higher points of the weekend, with a mention of the good feeling he had with the tires and the confidence he had been able to build up in the car.
But it wasn’t just that final stage interview, he went the entire weekend talking like a man deserving of an ERC victory. And clearly drove like one too.
This attitude will take Heikkilä very far as he begins to plant his name on the international scene.
He proved himself to be the star in a star-studded lineup this weekend.
A title contender for 2023? Watch this space.