Points systems can be a fickle thing. Some like them simple – the old 10-6-4-2-1 of the 1990s is a stark example. There’s merit to the modern-day powerstage, you can easily argue.
But bonus points for winning a stage, on every single stage? That has the power to turn a championship on its head.
Craig Breen knows. It won him a championship. Rally GB, 2011. He arrived at the WRC Academy finale trailing Egon Kaur by 20 points. But a massive haul of 39 points – through victory and 14 stage wins – drew Breen level with Kaur on 111 points.
The tiebreaker? Number of stage wins.
Kaur lost. But he doesn’t fault the points system – far from it. He thinks it’s a great idea.
“I’d actually praise the system that they had in that class, that every stage win gives you a point,” Kaur told DirtFish. “I would say that system would benefit all the classes, I think. It would be great to have as you would be sure that everybody is pushing on all of the stages and nobody’s holding anything back.”
Wind the clock forward 11 years and this time Estonia is not on the losing end of the stage-winning equation. Instead, one of Kaur’s compatriots has set a new record.
Robert Virves made history on his home rally. He won 17 stages in the Junior WRC class on last week’s Rally Estonia, breaking a long-held Sébastien Ogier record set way back in 2008 on Rally Jordan, where that year’s Junior WRC champion won 16 stages in a Citroën C2 S1600.
“Yeah, that was a really sweet surprise after the rally. Definitely happy with that,” says Virves.
This was not a Breen-like performance, where he had to put it all on the line in a hail-mary push for the title. There is still time. And Virves single-handedly bought himself that time.
It was definitely Ogier-esque, almost a mirror image of that weekend in Jordan 14 years prior.
Ogier had been battling Patrik Sandell for the lead early doors but lost over two minutes with a late check-in penalty. His brakes had stopped working and he’d been hurriedly fixing them before the next stage.
Down to eighth he plummeted.
In a strange twist of fate, Virves too would fall backwards down the order from the lead fight, his brakes not working. Albeit in his case, the woes were self-inflicted.
“Basically it was one really stupid mistake,” rued Virves.
Rocks had been placed at a right-left corner sequence during the recce, then removed before the rally proper began. He’d clocked the bulletin but played it safe on the first pass, staying tight and narrow to avoid where the rocks had once been.
All looked clear. It was time to be more aggressive on the second pass. But an unwelcome surprise lay in the long grass.
“When I arrived there, I went a bit wider and there was one stone hidden in the grass, which I hit with the left-rear. I lost the brakes with that and it was actually really lucky to not go off in the next corner because I kept it full throttle until that. But I didn’t have the brakes!”
A minute and a half was lost and he’d fallen down to fourth – the Junior WRC field this year is a bit less packed than the bustling 2008 entry that rolled up to the Middle East.
But it was still a potential disaster. Virves had come to Estonia trailing the main title contenders Sami Pajari – who was now clear in the lead – and Jon Armstrong.
With little to lose on Saturday morning, Virves stepped up to the plate.
Ogier before him had made it work – scything through the field all the way up to second by the end of Rally Jordan’s penultimate day.
Likewise, Virves smashed it out of the park. He scored eight stage wins out of a possible nine, putting him up to third and turning the screw on Armstrong.
Pajari out front was perhaps a stretch too far. But the lead had looked a gap too big to bridge for Ogier back in 2008 – only for Sandell to damage his suspension and retire.
Lifting off was not an option.
To have some pressure on the guys in front is goodRobert Virves
“When I saw that we are setting the pace and getting some time back from the other guys, after Saturday it was clear that we needed to continue like that on Sunday because anything can happen,” Virves pointed out. “To have some pressure on the guys in front is good.”
Virves held up his end of the bargain. Six stage wins from six on Sunday. But unlike Sandell, another driver who at the time was contesting Junior WRC having already won the title previously, Pajari held it together and got the victory.
It wasn’t quite enough. Virves had been 1m19.6s faster than anyone else over the last two days, only to miss out on the win.
But that push had hardly gone unrewarded. He’d scored 35 points to Pajari’s 29 despite finishing behind him.
It was a recovery drive that hauled Virves into the thick of the title fight. Pajari and Armstrong are tied at the top on 85 – but after bulldozing the field on the last two days in Estonia, Virves is lurking directly behind them on 84. And the highly consistent Lauri Joona is still in the mix on 79.
After a disastrous start to the season, where he crashed on the second stage of the season-opening Rally Sweden, retired, and came back to pick up a measly sixth place, the title was the last thing on his mind.
Was he thinking he could bring himself into title contention after that Swedish struggle? “Not really,” Virves responded.
“I’m trying not to think too much about this kind of thing. Usually if I go to the rally, I have to take everything rally by rally, budget-wise and so on. So I don’t think too far away.
“Of course, now when it’s done, that we are back in big game, I’m just happy that I was able to do it. I just hope people still keep believing in me and help me to go ahead and be able to do something good in the last event.”
That big game ends in Greece in September – Juniors head for their summer break earlier than the rest of the WRC contingent. Of all the places where putting everything on the line to rack up stage wins is a risky strategy, it’s the rough roads of the Acropolis. It’s going to be a fine line for everyone to balance, not just Virves.
“I hope to show some strong pace there. But of course, as I know from previous years, it’s quite a difficult rally for our championship because we need to win stage points and at the same time keep it on the road and everything,” Virves astutely points out.
“Of course, it’s a tough rally for the cars and the tires and everything. Hard to say if it’s a good rally for that or not but in the end, it doesn’t matter as it’s the same for everyone and we just need to go and do the best of the car.”
On offer for the champion is four paid-up drives in WRC2 with M-Sport next year, enough to cover more than half a full season in the rung immediately below the top level. It’s the big chance for Virves to follow in the footsteps of his compatriot Ott Tänak.
“It would be, for next year, a really good package to move ahead. But anything can happen.
“Of course, if I’m not going to win the championship, it’s not over for me. I will not give up, whatever happens there.”
Breen refused to give up on that fateful weekend in Wales 11 years earlier either. And we know how that ended.