It was never supposed to be like this.
Even if that superb drive on Rally Serras de Fafe to start the European Rally Championship season was cruelly punished by a powerstage puncture, the sky appeared to be the limit for reigning Finnish champion Mikko Heikkilä.
In among a field of superstars, the #38 seed had risen to the top spot on merit. The fact he wound up eighth wasn’t fair, but the Finn took it all in his stride.
“It’s just history – it is what it is,” he told DirtFish.
“In this sport you will face quite many times bad luck, and I think there was nothing new about having a puncture.”
But come his home round of the World Rally Championship, it was no longer just history for Heikkilä. Instead, history would tell us that Fafe was just the start of a problematic run that he was unable to arrest.
Typically honest and hard on himself, Heikkilä’s frustration was obvious as the WRC’s live TV camera was lowered into the cockpit of his Škoda.
“It was the seventh rally in a row which has been a disaster for us.”
And seven rallies is all Heikkilä’s 2023 season may be. Initially entering this weekend’s penultimate ERC round, Barum Rally Zlín, Heikkilä has instead decided to end his pain and cull his season early.
Heikkilä wasn’t prepared to reveal the full reason why: “I don’t want to open more about these things but we had a couple of incidents why we came to this decision that it’s better not to start Barum.”
But regardless, he sees no major negative in wrapping up a season where “the stars haven’t aligned for us”.
Heikkilä told DirtFish: “It has been a really difficult season so far and we are not able to fight for the top places in the championship, so we basically don’t lose so much.
“OK, [we could have got] experience from Barum, but now it’s better to take a small break and focus for the next season.”
The raised expectations from that pulsating Portuguese performance have heightened Heikkilä’s disappointment.
“After Portugal I was hoping that we were able to bring some results, especially on gravel,” he said.
“I knew before that we are not able to fight for the top places on Tarmac, but on gravel that was my target to be on the podium at least and even to fight for the win. But it was a really difficult season.
“We have so many troubles with many things and OK, I made also a couple of mistakes by myself, but we were not able to fight for the win.
“For sure it was a big disappointment for me the season, result-wise, but at the same time we learned a lot about different rallies.
“I think that we could have fought for better results than what we got but it’s rallying, many times it’s more difficult than what you are expecting.
“A bit sad for that, but we learned a lot and I hope that next year is easier.”
On paper, Heikkilä’s results don’t seem to fit the ‘disastrous’ billing, but little niggling issues prevented him from achieving what he felt he was truly capable of.
As the season wore on, the frustration only grew. Royal Rally of Scandinavia was tipped to be a strong event for Heikkilä, but he clipped a rock on the line and broke a rim.
Then on Rally di Roma, his first event in the new Fabia RS Rally2, the Finn crashed out.
What Heikkilä really needed was a clean run and a big result on Rally Finland but, once more, it wasn’t to be.
“The ERC championship had been really difficult for us; six rallies in a row which were more or less a disaster for us, and I was really waiting that now we have a chance to get a result and fight for the good position and everything.
“But it was the first acceleration where we basically lost it…”
The usually unflappable Finn lost his cool.
“To be honest, after the first stage I was so, so angry,” he explained.
“Quite many times I am quite calm even if we have troubles, but for the first time in many, many years I was quite angry because it was the first proper stage and first acceleration after the start-line, first upshift and then the gear lever broke.
“So we basically lost every hope for that rally on the first acceleration, so I was quite angry for that as I realized we are not able to fight for the win. It was stage number three or four we got also the puncture, so the rally was over very soon.”
Heikkilä’s decision to throw in the towel and save the budget for 2024 seems really smart once you fully appreciate all of this context.
But the overriding positive from the year is the wider rallying world is now fully aware of what Heikkilä is about. And that’s ominous considering he feels he has a lot more to give.
“That’s true,” Heikkilä conceded, “because last year nobody had heard of us. OK, still we are not like a superstar name but yeah, many people now at the moment know me and that’s a good point also, I agree.”
He hopes to be back out in a car somewhere towards the end of the year to keep himself match-fit, but the target is another ERC campaign next season.
“I would say that’s the good target, yeah.
“OK, world championship events would be also really nice to do, but then we need to find 50% more money to do world championship – that’s why ERC is quite a nice championship.
“But also I have been really happy with the ERC. The people who are there are really nice and the rallies and events they are very well organized, and the level of the competition, I would say it’s quite equal to WRC2.
“And also this visibility from the TV and the media and these kind of things are really on the good level on the ERC.”
This weekend may be devoid of any ERC action for the Finn, but Heikkilä’s more than content with that choice.
Fresh from a bike ride and cooking when DirtFish called, he was in high spirits as we asked if we should call back.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s not high-level cuisine!”
Hungry by the thought of food, once the serious questions were out of the way we just had to ask what he was creating.
“Mincemeat with some sauce and mushrooms and this kind of thing – it will be good!”
And so will Heikkilä’s new weekend plan.
“I will go fishing,” he said.
“I really like fishing so I will go fishing, and of course I will follow the results and the rally from the ERC Live – I am not angry at rallying, it’s not like that.
“[But] I hope that we can eat fish on the weekend!”