Two weeks ago, we were all waiting to see who would be crowned the 2021 World Rally Champion.
Sébastien Ogier looked to have the title secured starting the Monza Rally powerstage, leading the rally from title rival and Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans when he could actually afford to finish several places behind in order to seal an eighth world title.
It was, seemingly, something of a foregone conclusion.
The same could not be said for the WRC3 contest. Yohan Rossel and Kajetan Kajetanowicz were level on points heading into the finale, and the fight, incredibly, came down to the very last stage.
But even before that sensational drama, things were kicking off away from the stages.
Rossel had won the Acropolis Rally in Greece but was disqualified later in the evening for an overweight subframe. It was a decision he appealed, but to no avail.
Instead of having the championship in his back pocket, Rossel therefore had to beat Kajetanowicz on the Monza Rally.
“After Greece honestly it was so difficult,” Rossel admits to DirtFish, “because when you give all of your energy and spend a lot of money on making that happen and you lose the victory it’s so hard, for everyone honestly, not just me.
“Obviously it was quite hard to be motivated after the appeal got rejected, but regardless everything was already set up to race in Monza so there wasn’t really any time to be bothered by it.
“And after Spain I was happy because the championship was not dead. If I won Monza, I would win the championship and if Kajto won Spain I think it would have been dead.
“It wasn’t easy, but honestly I looked at our performance in Greece, Ypres and all events, I wasn’t worried about not being able to win.”
Rossel was right to be confident. After 11 of the rally’s 16 stages, he led Kajetanowicz by 22.1 seconds with Andrea Crugnola sandwiched between them. It was all looking well set up. But looks can be deceiving.
“I had an issue on the steering wheel and honestly I worked very hard on the setting after the second day, just before the end, because I had good performance in the mountains but on the track it’s so difficult, and when I understood that with my engineer and all the team on Sunday the setting was just perfect,” Rossel explains.
The feeling may have been perfect, but the situation certainly wasn’t. Rossel had led his rival for the entire event, but Kajetanowicz had slipped ahead by just 1.6s on the penultimate test. Suddenly, Rossel had it all to do. Battle was on.
Did Rossel wilt? Did he heck. Quickest by 3.1s – and 4.7s faster than Kajetanowicz – Rossel’s plan was clear: “I go just flat out.
“It was a very clean stage, honestly yes,” he adds, “but at the end of the stage I didn’t know if I’d won. My co-driver said ‘yes, well done, you have done a great stage’ but I knew the guys would push very hard, maybe even one, two, three seconds better.
“Just after the finish I saw my brother, and he didn’t know if I’d won or not because Kajto started just behind me, but when I realized ‘yes, yes, yes it’s good, I’ve won the powerstage’ it was perfect.
“It’s fantastic honestly because all my family and friends were there in Monza and on the last kilometer, last stage of the championship to be world champion it’s just crazy.
“For two seconds I think I am world champion. Honestly it’s fantastic [but] I didn’t realize [what I’d done], it was a few days after where I say ‘yes, OK, I am world champion’ but for me it’s just a step.
“It’s perfect to be world champion in WRC3, but I want to win other categories in WRC2 and maybe in WRC, I hope!”
It’s this ambition that will take Rossel far. His WRC3 campaign has already been eye-catching but the manner in which he clinched the title – against the backdrop of losing a victory he, on a pure driving basis, didn’t deserve to lose – was simply epic and only improves the narrative.
But in his words, this is just “a step”. WRC2 appears the most logical step, and although “it’s not signed yet” Rossel thinks “in a few days I will know the decision, I hope I will be there”.
And he’s sure he can win that, too.
“When you’re racing in WRC3 you compare yourself a lot to the WRC2 guys, and a journalist this year told me that if I was in WRC2 I most likely would’ve been vice-champion behind [champion Andreas] Mikkelsen.
“So of course I look at the big picture. Even if I don’t win all the races, my goal is to win the championship and be the person with the most points at the end of the year. So if I am in WRC2 next year, the goal will be the same. This is my vision of rallying, to win championships.”
Let’s see if Santa is kind to Rossel this year and leaves a WRC2 program in his stocking. That’ll give him another chance of completing his “vision” but he’ll have to pull off something astonishing to win another championship in as thrilling a manner as this year.