This is it for the 2023 Rally Estonia. After early disappointment for Ott Tänak and another resounding victory for Kalle Rovanperä, the future of the rally is up in the air.
Not quite a lifetime, but 2009 certainly seems far away now. And why would it not? Eesti Kroon was still in use, Apple had not yet released the first iPad, and the Harry Potter franchise was still ongoing. The world was oblivious to Gangnam Style, planking, and the Ice Bucket Challenge, while both Nelson Mandela and Osama Bin Laden were still alive. And luckily for us, the world did not end in 2012.
In WRC, Sebastien Loeb won his sixth straight drivers’ championship title, while Urmo Aava also techincally led the series for a brief moment (since he was leading Rally Ireland, the first event of the year, after the second and third stage). The Estonian driver only competed in three WRC rallies – his last three – but that year changed his life in part thanks to long-time friend Silver Kütt.
“He was the one who came up with the crazy idea in 2009,” Aava reminisced ten years later. “We both had plenty of rallying experience from driving, spectating, and also organizing for the youth. But Silver had an idea to do something big. I went along with it.”
It was Aava’s idea to include a marketing specialist, so they knocked on the door of Tarmo Hõbe, and the trio that would go on to organize one of the biggest sporting events in Estonian history was born. Just a year later, the first Rally Estonia would be held.
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Who would have been more suitable to win the first event than local hero and five-time WRC rally winner Markko Märtin? Co-driven by Kristo Kraag and in his favourite rally car, the 2003 Ford Focus RS WRC, Märtin won all twelve stages and finished almost three minutes ahead of Ott Tänak, who was a nothing more than a 22-year-old promising youngster at the time.
Märtin would be back to defend his victory in 2011, again with the 03 Focus, but Norwegian Mads Östberg – who had the advantage of a modern-day Ford Fiesta WRC – was 24 seconds quicker over 162.49 kilometers. It would also mark the last time Märtin would compete in Estonia with his beloved Focus.
What Märtin failed to do, Östberg managed brilliantly by keeping future star Thierry Neuville behind. The Norwegian, whose win in Portugal that year is still his only WRC win to date, finished 26.5 seconds ahead of the Belgian in what was also a battle between the Fiesta WRC and the Citroen DS3 WRC.
Georg Gross/Raigo Mõlder came first in their 2008 Focus WRC – the Estonian driver had finished third the year before, but with both Östberg and Neuville missing, the field was wide-open and Gross made the most of having the only WRC car on the grid. Eight Estonians made the top 10, with Karl Kruuda finishing second.
The first real step up came in 2014, when Rally Estonia joined the ERC (European Rally Championship) calendar. Tänak, who had fallen out of favour in the WRC after a substandard 2012 season, got his second chance with M-Sport in 2014 but also had time to enjoy his first win in Estonia in a Ford Fiesta R5. Russian driver Alexey Lukyanuk and local Timmu Kõrge completed the podium while future WRC ace Esapekka Lappi finished fifth.
Another year in the ERC produced a feisty battle between Lukyanuk in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X and Polish racer Kajetan Kajetanowicz, who was in a newer Fiesta R5. The raw speed of Lukyanuk prevailed by 12.7 seconds despite inferior technology. Rainer Aus completed the podium as the fastest Estonian.
Lukyanuk again led from first stage and had everything under control for most of the rally, until a mistake on the penultimate stage handed an unlikely ERC victory to a young Latvian driver Ralfs Sirmacis. Kajetanowicz and Aus finished second and third for the second year in a row.
After seven consecutive years, the trio of Aava-Kütt-Hõbe took some time off despite Rally Estonia being a valued member of the ERC. “It is now time to set new goals, because standing still in not an option for us,” the organizers announced via a press release. Aava added: “We will not be hosting a WRC Rally in 2018, but continuing in the same vein would not make sense. We would end up at the same spot. This year off will give us time to reconsider the foundations of the event.”
Rally Estonia returned and for the first time since 2012, a modern-day WRC car was seen flying through the forest stages – the rally was advertised as a testing ground for Rally Finland, and three factory teams used the chance. Tänak took his second win in the Toyota Yaris WRC, Hayden Paddon (Hyundai i20 WRC) finished second, and Craig Breen (Citroen C3 WRC) completed the podium.
A dream to host a promotional WRC event in Estonia became reality: a total of eight WRC machines participated, with Tänak in his Yaris winning once again. Andreas Mikkelsen (Hyundai) and Esapekka Lappi (Citroen) also stood on the podium while Markko Märtin finished sixth in the new-era Ford Fiesta WRC car, his first and so far only competitive drive since 2011.
The year had plenty of drama – in February, the promotional event was cancelled because of a dispute between the organizers and the Estonian Autosport Union. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and six WRC rounds were called off between March and August. Rally Estonia would go on to join the calendar as a surprise addition, and everything was organized in just 63 days.
From September 4th to 6th, Estonia became the thirty-third nation to host a WRC round, and the first after COVID-19. Tänak, now the reigning world rally champion and with Hyundai, completed his hat-trick of wins while team-mate Craig Breen made it a Hyundai one-two. Sebastien Ogier finished third as the best Toyota driver.
This time, Rally Estonia was a part of the calendar from the start and local hero Tänak again came in as the heavy favourite, but three punctures early on Friday ended his hopes. Instead, Finn Kalle Rovanperä (Toyota) made history by winning his first WRC event while becoming the youngest ever winner at 20 years and 289 days. Breen was again second, with another Hyundai driver Thierry Neuville third.
Rovanperä was once again a man on a mission, finishing a minute ahead of Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans en route to his maiden WRC drivers’ championship. Tänak struggled to a third-place finish with Hyundai. Meanwhile, WRC2 driver Egon Kaur became the only driver to contest all Rally Estonia events so far.
Many hoped for Tänak to bounce back at the thirteenth Rally Estonia, but a engine issue with the M-Sport Puma WRC set him five minutes back even before the rally started and meant he did not stand a chance to fight. Rovanperä instead completed his hat-trick with a dominant performance, with Neuville second and Esapekka Lappi third (both Hyundai).
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Sometimes dreams come true. They certainly did for Silver Kütt and Urmo Aava, when Rally Estonia reached the WRC. Everyone was more than satisfied with the organizing party and the FIA offered a three-year contract running from 2024 to 2026, but no guarantee was given by the Estonian goverment. That meant an agreement could not be reached about the future.
In 2024, Latvia will host their first WRC event – and although it is yet to be confirmed, it seems highly unlikely that there would be room for Rally Estonia too, despite Aava hinting that they would be ready if the opportunity presented itself. It would need a miracle.
Whether it will be another gap year in 2024 or the end of the road remains to be seen. But if this it it, it has been a wild, unforgettable ride.