If you want to win, hire a Finn, so the old adage goes. And it’s certainly good advice, considering Finland has more World Rally champions than any other nation (even if Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier pushed France beyond Finland in terms of total titles won).
Or it was. Finland’s last world title came 20 years ago, with Marcus Gronhölm in a Peugeot 206 WRC. That’s a long time to wait.
That wait could be over this year – Kalle Rovanperä is leading the world championship, after all. But while the home crowds have their eyes locked on their new great hope on the world stage, an intruder has snuck in the back door and is trying to steal the family jewelry on home ground.
Times are changing. Maybe you don’t need a Finn to win – even in Finland itself. Estonian driver Egon Kaur is trying to pull off rallying’s greatest heist: nick the Finnish championship title from the Finns.
It’s been done once before, admittedly. Kaur’s compatriot Karl Kruuda used a Ford Fiesta S2000 to win Finland’s top prize in 2014, but the Finns could claim that the wide-open regulations meant he had the best car against a field of Group N machines and the odd older WRC car.
This time it’s different. Everyone’s in the same boat with Rally2 cars. There’s no asterisk if the Finns lose their own championship.
And to an Estonian, no less. That would surely hurt.
There’s a long-held friendly rivalry between the two nations in rallying. You only need to look at Rally Finland’s tongue-in-cheek video before its WRC round in 2003, where a Finnish man standing in an empty forest calls out: “Markko, where are you?”
Markko Märtin then went and won the rally. Ouch.
Is Kaur going to repeat his forerunner’s triumph? Perhaps. He’s currently second in the standings behind reigning champion Emil Lindholm and, while he hasn’t scored a rally win so far this season, he’s done it before.
“Obviously there’s always a bit of rivalry going on,” Kaur tells DirtFish. “Last year we managed to win one of the events – we did two at the national level – which we took as a test rally.
“That was quite a surprise for us and for them as well. So, we definitely know it’s possible [to win]. Then they were definitely also saying on the rally that some guy from Estonia came and snatched the win away from the Finns, who were still fighting for the championship back then.”
Kaur’s reason for invading Finland is quite simple – he wants to compete in “the tightest competition at national level on gravel and snow in Europe, probably the whole world,” to aid his preparation for a limited WRC2 program.
The truth is we have four drivers that are equally likely to win any event. I don't think there's been such a situation in the Finnish championship for a whileEmil Lindholm on the competitiveness of the Finnish Rally Championship
“What I really like is the level of competition in Finland. If you go there for the first time, then you realize how tight it is. There’s no room for any errors or even to go, let’s say, safely, as you lose a lot of time, so far from the top.”
The locals agree. It’s tough. Perhaps tougher than it’s ever been. Lindholm, the reigning champion, leads the standings after three rallies with two wins – but he also spun out on Riihimäki while playing catch-up from snow-sweeping earlier in the event.
Kaur – along with Teemu Asunmaa and Mikko Heikkilä – are putting him under even more pressure to retain his crown.
“The truth is, for me, we have four drivers that are equally likely to win any event. I don’t think there’s been such a situation in the Finnish championship for a while,” says Lindholm.
“It seems the level of the championship has been going up, at least in the years I’ve been driving there. I’m quite convinced of that. When you’re pushing the limits and trying to find speed you face diminishing returns eventually.”
Pushing the limits is also what Kaur’s been doing – outside of the car as much as in it.
On paper, he was massively up against it coming into this season. Lindholm, Asunmaa and Heikkilä are all in Škoda Fabia Rally2 evos prepared by former WRC driver Toni Gardemeister’s crack firm TGS.
Kaur, meanwhile, was running a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 as a privateer, out of his own workshop in Estonia. He was always going to be starting rallies on the back foot; a plan was needed to get even.
But there was an ace up his sleeve for this year: Markku Rautio. Together with the Finnish steel magnate, he’s gone from running a car by himself to building a squad to rival the TGS superteam he faces.
If you can’t beat them, join them? Not this time. If you can’t beat them, get their best engineer. Lauri Mattila, who worked for TGS back when they ran Rovanperä in a Škoda, is now running Kaur’s Polo out of his factory in Kouvola.
And it gets better. Part of the package deal includes getting former M-Sport WRC driver Teemu Suninen in as a team-mate for testing – the pair worked together on honing his pace-note system before the season started.
It’s been a huge forward step for Kaur – one that gives him a platform to try and beat the Finns at their own game.
“The problem [with running a car in-house] is I was doing too many jobs myself at once and basically the driving part came at the end,” he says.
“So far quite a lot of problems have been that I’ve just had to work on different jobs in the same team, so concentrating on the performance has been a little bit on the background. If you do that, you’re giving an edge away to the competitors, so it’s not really something we could allow anymore.”
Even though he’s managed to level out the playing field, it’s still going to be a massive ask to beat Lindholm and his TGS team-mates.
Kaur was “too steady” when dealing with his early road order position on Riihimäki and finished fifth. Heikkilä was atop the standings after round two and had taken the lead on round three, Kuopio, until his Fabia failed him. When it came down to a two-way fight between Lindholm and Kaur for the win there, it was Lindholm who edged it.
But the gap is small. Kaur is only eight points behind Lindholm. And the margin of victory on Kaupio was a mere 4.1 seconds, with the duo trading fastest times throughout.
Lindholm knows that even if he’s the favorite to retain his title, he’s got an even bigger problem than his own team-mates to contend with this year.
“Egon’s a good driver and a nice person, it’s absolutely nothing personal in it, but somehow it would be slightly sad to see someone else win the Finnish championship, I do agree! But if it’s Egon we can be sure we lost to a good driver.
“On the other hand, I guess it’s also to do with the fact that every single one of us wants to win the championship – it doesn’t matter if it’s Estonian or not.”
Nobody is going to wander into the forest this year asking Egon where he is. They already know. The question is: which Finn is going to step up and stop him?