I’m writing this slap, bang in the middle of the Gulf of Finland. Heading north. The wrong direction. How’s that possible? How can destination Helsinki ever be considered the wrong direction?
Simple, it means Tallinn and Estonia are in the rear-view mirror.
Three years ago, Rally Estonia’s World Rally Championship journey began and I headed for Tartu for the first time. I wasn’t sure.
The world was mid-COVID, we’d been six months without a WRC round and now the powers that be had elected to relaunch our world with an event untried and untested at the sport’s highest level.
Sure, Estonia had hosted a few of those WRC Promotional events, but what did they actually mean?
We had a country coming into the championship for the first time in the full glare of a global spotlight, and on top of that it was coming in with the incredible demands of running under Appendix S.
Remember that? Appendix S was the FIA’s hastily arranged set of COVID-19 protocols. It laid out rules dictating how the sport could move forward within the confines of a pandemic which had brought the world to its knees.
It’s fair to say, Appendix S was something of a moveable feast with, at times, almost daily evolutions to the interpretation and implementation of the framework.
Estonia happily put up its hand to be first to run under these circumstances.
And it did so brilliantly. The service park was divided as directed and best practise very quickly established. It set the bar so high, in fact, I don’t remember any other event reaching the same standards of running within the COVID era.
But there was still that lingering doubt in my mind: what was the real point of Estonia? For years that WRC Promotional event had doubled as a dress rehearsal for Finland.
Where the stages were topographically challenged, jumps were built to replicate the roads further north. Everything was geared towards Jyväskylä prep – but where was the need for a faux-Finland when we had the real thing?
I was wrong. There’s no end of character in the gravel that sits on the roads around Otepää. And when world champion Kalle Rovanperä declares these to be his favorite stages of the season, who on earth am I to question that?
There was never a question of whether the fans would come (once they were freed from COVID restrictions), but my concern was how the organizer would handle them.
Again, it was peerless.
Yes, there were traffic jams, but nothing too onerous. And anybody who set foot into Tartu’s main square for the ceremonial start will never forget the atmosphere. For years, Guanajuato had been the go-to for how to get a rally going, but now México had a serious rival.
Rally director Urmo Aava and his team had found the perfect blend of family entertainment and hardcore rally fan engagement. And last weekend was more of the same.
Sitting in the restaurant at the Estonia Museum planning our post-event podcast on Sunday night, the mood was dark. Colin Clark and I gazed out of the window and watched fan after fan trudge out of the Raadi service park – a place which had doubled as a spectacular spectator stage on Thursday and Saturday.
“That’s pretty miserable,” offered Colin. “Thursday night they were all coming in here, all smiles and full of enthusiasm. Now look…”
They walked out full of uncertainty.
Elections, the war in Ukraine and an ongoing energy crisis are all understandable reasons for the government stepping back from funding a WRC round. Aava’s hoping for an answer on the budget front moving forwards some time next month.
It had better be positive. This simply can’t be the end of Estonia’s journey in the world championship. The place and the people deserve so much more.
And anybody ill-informed enough to label this place a ‘faux Finland’ needs to have a word with themself. It’s fast gravel, that’s where the similarity begins and ends. And it’s not like we don’t have enough slow gravel on the calendar.
I’m looking forward to Latvia next season. It’s always good to go somewhere new and my Estonian experience of 2020 has taught me it’s well worth binning the preconceptions.