A big call was made a few years back. A huge call. Rallying’s junior ladder was broken, missing a critical piece.
The gap between R5 and R2 had become less of a step and more of a vast chasm. Time after time, drivers trying to make the step up failed to make the grade.
Thus came the Rally3; a new set of technical regulations for an entry-level four-wheel-drive car. And 2022 was the ultimate test of whether it would work or fail – after a bit of a year of sporadic appearances in various championships, the Ford Fiesta Rally3 became the backbone of Junior WRC.
Now comes the time for its newly crowned champion to take the big step up.
Robert Virves, fresh off the back of winning the title in Greece despite going into the finale third in the standings, wasn’t going to wait until next year to see how he’d cope with the step up to Rally2. Home was calling.
Saaremaa Rally, the Estonian championship finale, was the perfect opportunity to indulge in a step up to see how much Virves developed since the last time he’d sampled similar equipment a year earlier.
He’d been outclassed by more experienced Estonians like Ken Torn and Georg Linnamäe the last time he’d stepped up. Not this time. He was the fastest man in Saaremaa, period.
Egon Kaur, a regular on the northern European rounds of WRC2, may have won by 7.8s. But Virves had been leading until a slow puncture set him back – and the time lost on that stage was larger than Kaur’s margin of victory.
“That was the best part; it’s my home rally but Egon has been driving these roads many more times and there were some stages I hadn’t driven at all, so it was quite like a sprint rally,” Virves told DirtFish.
“It was quite close, which was quite frustrating. But overall, I’m happy because I was the only guy with an older spec of Škoda, so I think we had a really nice pace.”
That’s not the same level of benchmark as going up against Andreas Mikkelsen in WRC2, of course. But the night-and-day difference between stepping up to Rally2 after a year in Rally3, compared to going straight there from two-wheel-drive machinery, is giving Virves reason to be optimistic that he won’t hit the same dead end as many before him.
I definitely felt [sic] why the Rally3 was made. That was the point, to make the step easier to Rally2
Those times he’d tried out the Hyundai i20 R5 and Volkswagen Polo GTI R5, only to fall short of the leading pace, are history now.
“There’s nothing to compare. It was completely different,” he says of his step up to the Fabia for Saaremaa.
“The season with the Rally3 has been a really big help. I definitely felt [sic] why the Rally3 was made. That was the point, to make the step easier to Rally2.
“When we had to go from Rally4 to Rally2, it was kind of stupid. It’s too big a step and you can’t make it work with one pre-event test and then go to race. So definitely the feeling this year was much better. I was quite well prepared already by driving the Rally3.”
Next season remains somewhat up in the air. Virves has four WRC2 rounds guaranteed in an M-Sport Fiesta Rally2 as a prize for winning this year’s Junior crown – with a tidy discount if he wants to add two more rounds in a Fiesta to his program.
But he’s still got the post-season to figure out before knowing what 2023 looks like.
“It’s been crazy,” said Virves. “I’ve had my home rally now and I’m trying to figure out things for next season. I have a party with all the sponsors next week.
“I’m going to have an evening with Margus Kiiver; he’s an Estonian sports radio host specializing in rallying, so he’ll be hosting the evening. It’ll be fun.”
“I haven’t really got to directly work on the next season yet. Budget-wise I’m trying to make a plan to present to the sponsors. I’m still working on that part but I think I’m more optimistic than pessimistic.
“I hope it will work out and I will get to do a proper season.”
There is still the question mark of whether the Fiesta Rally2 can live with the Fabia and Polo – especially with Škoda launching its fourth Rally2 evolution of the Fabia, the RS, ahead of next season.
But what Virves’ star turn at home suggests is that he might hit the ground running in 2023. And that the FIA’s Rally3 gambit might be on the cusp of paying off.