If ever there’s a nation whose rallying stock is going through the roof right now, it’s Estonia.
This is a country with a couple of world champions in Ott Tänak and Martin Järveoja, a legend in the shape of Markko Märtin, hundreds of thousands of the most committed rally fans in the world and arguably the best rally outside of the WRC.
But, give it time. Rally Estonia, as a WRC Promotional Event, will be part of rallying’s most celebrated calendar soon enough.
Or so we thought.
So we thought, until a nation combined to pick up a gun, take aim and shoot itself so squarely in the foot – if not both feet – it actually beggars belief.
When I talked to folk in Estonia last week, there were concerns about the changes the Estonian Autosport Union had implemented, but my claim of a crisis was dismissed. These ‘discussions’ would bear fruit, common ground would be found and all would be well.
Don’t, I was told, be silly. Rally Estonia will be bigger and better in 2020. And, crucially, one step closer to the world championship.
Common ground was missed, discussions dismissed and a nation of rally fans pretty much heartbroken at the prospect of missing out on seeing their heroes Tänak, Märtin and some of the other fastest and finest crews and cars in their backyard this summer.
How has it come to this?
I’ve spoken to both sides and the real frustration is that both sides can see where the other one is coming from.
Rally chief and former factory WRC driver Urmo Aava gets that the governing body of Estonian motorsport wants to ‘tax’ events to source income to help find the next Aava, Märtin or Tänak. He just has an issue with that number being 4%.
And EAU board member Janis Kaal understands Aava’s frustrations.
And both are right. Aava’s quite correct in his positioning that there was no mention of a percentage in the contract he signed with the EAU to run Rally Estonia from 2017 through to 2023.
And it’s very hard to argue against a governing body wanting to pump some of the profit from the nation’s biggest rally back into domestic rallying. Aava agrees and had previously agreed a donation of more than £20,000 to the EAU.
And then we have the curveball of Oleg Gross – a longtime Rally Estonia supporter and another member of the EAU board – reportedly willing to pay up to €100,000 to the EAU to keep the event on track.
That, I must admit, is the bit I don’t really understand. Yes, I can see Aava’s point that he wasn’t told until the last minute. But still, if somebody’s willing to step in and save the day, surely that’s got to be worth a conversation.
What really troubles me here is the fact that we’ve lost a genuinely great rally. I was supposed to go last year, but ultimately couldn’t make it. But colleagues who did go have nothing but the highest of praise for what Aava and his team have achieved.
And, let’s face it, Tänak and Märtin aren’t the easiest folk in the world to please, but they both came away from the event with big smiles.
Estonia as a nation of proper, proper rally fans deserves more than this. I don’t know those involved well enough to make a judgement, but I would hate to think thousands and thousands of fans are paying the price for a collision of corporate-level egos.
Aava and Kaal are, to me, the most rational of chaps and we have to hope they can still find a solution.
Rally Estonia is, without a doubt, the biggest motorsport event over there. But Rally Estonia is not bigger than rallying in Estonia.
The Estonian government has recognized rallying as a worthwhile investment and what sort of message are we, as rallying as a whole, sending to prime minister Jüri Ratas and his cabinet when we can’t keep our own house in order sufficiently to spend his money?
As one source close to both sides told me: “There’s not really a good reason for cancelling the event. There is no funding issue. If this is to decide a pecking order of who’s most important in rallying in Estonia, then we need to get on with that. And then stop making everybody suffer.”
Sounds entirely sensible to me.