Take a bow Ott Tänak. Take a bow Martin Järveoja. Take a bow Estonia.
Under the most difficult of conditions, the Tartu-based event delivered a World Rally Championship debut of the highest order. It had the look and the feel of a long-serving, entirely competent competition that had been on the calendar for years.
The reality was of a first-timer deployed to breathe life back into the WRC after six months’ lockdown. There was an element of the bizarre about the whole thing last weekend; the first WRC round since México was the same Estonian national rally canceled in February as the organizer failed to find a workable solution with the national federation.
Common ground found, Estonia’s stars aligned.
Much as the rally deserved to be in the spotlight, Estonia was cast into the shade by a pair of Estonians. Sons of an increasingly formidable rallying nation, Tänak and Järveoja held their people captivated. And made them proud.
For weeks now, I’ve tried to get Tänak to front up to the pressure that was building in his backyard.
The weight of expectation from his countrymen; the pursuit of his first win for Hyundai; the need to get the title tilt back on track and the i20 Coupe WRC’s lack of pace in the fast and faster stages.
He’s had none of it.
Seeing him for the first time after the win, coronavirus measures quite literally masked the smile. But there was nothing to hide the shine in the bright blue eyes. He was beaming. He was relieved.
“The pressure was everywhere,” he said. “More than plenty of pressure; first time for Estonia in the WRC. I still had no win for Hyundai and normally the team has been struggling in these kind of conditions. The plan was to get the title back on track, but there was plenty of stress.”
You’d never have guessed.
Returning from a pre-shakedown run up the road and stopping for a stretch alongside the filming of DirtFish’s Friday morning video, Tänak tilted his head and listened in to Colin Clark’s words.
The immediate impetus on Saturday morning was with Toyota, with Kalle Rovanperä running quickest. Tänak was fourth.
This news line had been running ever since 19-year-old Rovanperä put Ott to the sword a fortnight earlier in South Estonia. Could the Finn turn the guns on Estonia in the same way Tänak has broken local hearts in Finland for the last two years?
On the evidence of a stormer through Prangli, yes.
Kalle shipped almost half a minute with a left-rear puncture and the champion hit his stride. Tänak was inspired on SS3. Five seconds faster than anybody in 12 miles, he hit the front. Surprisingly, that wasn’t followed by a volley of scratch times. The leader was by no means out of sight at lunchtime. He was 6.8s up on Hyundai team-mate Craig Breen after the first loop. And 11.7s by the end of the day.
The only problem for Tänak through the morning was a tire “issue” that he managed.
Management looked to be the key word in his day. Big gaps on fast rallies are hard to come by at the sport’s sharpest end and as much as the #8 Hyundai never looked like it was about to disappear into the distance, it never looked as though it would be genuinely overpowered.
That thinking was underlined when Thierry Neuville’s i20 emerged from SS7 one wheel short of the usual quartet. Being brutally honest, the Belgian had been close in third place, but he’d never looked like a genuine threat. Realistically, he was more of a threat than second-placed Breen.
Hyundai team principal Andrea Adamo has been consistently clear where his intention’s lie: the winner’s circle. How he gets there is less important than the fact that he gets there.
Breen’s part-time program would leave him open to a degree more maneuverability than Neuville. Not that it was needed.
Tänak’s win was home-made, but the foundations were laid in lockdown. In Alzenau. Managed by Adamo.
His input into making the i20 into a fast rally winner has been all-encompassing. But not singular.
Typically, Tänak saw the credit coming and ducked.
“I’ve been sitting on my sofa,” he said. “The credit has to go to the team – they did the hard work.”
If Tänak’s win was telegraphed, Breen’s second place was a genuine guide to how much the car has improved. That’s absolutely not to detract from a quite stunning, inch-perfect and completely controlled drive from Waterford’s very own superstar.
By his own admission, the car’s come some distance since Sweden in February.
“I’ve waited a very, very long time for a car like this,” said Breen, unable to contain his absolute delight at driving the finest ‘yoke’ he’s ever had his hands on.
Breen’s result must surely have Adamo thinking long and hard about his line-up for next season. Surely the Irishman’s earned his full-time ticket now? To finish a handful of seconds behind the world champion while containing a charging six-time champion set on stealing second is something special.
And some of Breen’s speed will have come from driving an i20 R5 on MRF tires. It’s no secret that the Indian rubber is still in its infancy on the loose. To make the times he’s been making in his MRF-based ERC program, Breen has had to put the Hyundai right on the ragged edge. When you’re used to living life on the limit of comfort, grip and common sense, climbing aboard an i20 Coupe WRC with bags of aero push from above and stickiness from below makes the job a touch more straightforward.
But you’ve still got to steer it. And Breen’s genius at the wheel shone through.
What about Toyota? What went wrong? Team principal Tommi Mäkinen talked of testing on the wrong roads, but the reality of the thing is that Hyundai did its homework.
Now we have to wait and see if Toyota’s focused its efforts on the rough gravel.
As Sébastien Ogier said: “I’m impassioned to be in Turkey because I’m impassioned to see what we’ve done in their playground.”
If they want to fight fire with fire in a championship race split by five points in Toyota’s favor, the Puuppola-built cars will need to eschew their previous Turkish outings (apart from a hand-me-down win taken by Tänak after everybody else retired in 2018) and paint the podium red, white and black.
And nobody wants that more than Ogier, Evans and Rovanperä.
One thing that won’t be changing before Turkey is the coronavirus way of life.
As mentioned early on, the organizer did a great job in terms of the sporting contest. But their approach to COVID-complicity was a real talking point around the service park.
Or at least I think it was. Not being allowed into the service park made it difficult to know.
We were grouped into low and high density, with high density folk staying in the service park and not allowed on the stages. We went low and were granted access to the drivers via our own DirtFish media pen. The drivers filed past us in a facing pen, two meters away. It was all entirely surreal and entirely uncomfortable. Not to mention horribly sterile to the point that hearing drivers, let alone determining any kind of emotion, was almost impossible.
But it had to be that way. And it has to be that way.
It’s not ideal. Far from it. And there was no shortage of folks ready to kick back against the system, but taking aim at the Estonian organizer was entirely unfair. It made a square peg fit a round hole last weekend and should be applauded for doing that.
Much as Urmo Aava and his team deserve a pat on the back, it was slightly frustrating to hear politicians talking at length about how the Rally Estonia team had brought rallying to life in Estonia.
Rallying has a strong heritage in this part of the world – even through the times of Russian rule there was fever in the forests. But let’s not beat about the bush here, Estonian rallying took off when Markko Märtin took on the world and won.
Will we be back in Estonia? I truly hope so.
My previous trips have kept me in the center of Tallinn with no time to explore. This time we went east and deep south and, what a fantastic place. Tallinn’s old town is exquisite, the port area as cool as anything modern day east London has to offer, while Otepää offers a beautiful center of winter sporting excellence.
But more than that, I want to go back for the people.
One of the fears for last weekend was that the stages would be overrun with the marauding ticket-less masses. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
There were 16,500 tickets on offer and 16,500 ticket holders were on the stages. The rest stood in the streets or waved from their windows – especially in Järveoja’s very proud hometown of Elva. Every route in (and by definition out) of the town was covered by a banner welcoming you to the home of their world champion.
As predicted, Estonia took the WRC to its heart. And at the very beating heart of the country’s rally culture, sits a true titan. Bravo Ott.