By this time next month, the 2023 Rally Estonia will be over. There is also a strong possibility that should his fast-but-fragile Ford Puma Rally1 hold together, then Rally Estonia 2023 will be won by one of the country’s favourite sons, Ott Tänak.
After all, it’s Tänak who won the inaugural event on the fast and flowing gravel roads of southern Estonia in 2020. Tänak, who also won the World Rally Championship drivers’ title in 2019, is also considered to be one of the fastest - if not the outright fastest - drivers currently competing in the WRC.
“To have Markko win Finland, then have Estonia’s then-Prime Minister at the prize-giving at the finish did absolutely incredible things” - Malcolm Wilson OBE
Estonia, then, is a fully-fledged member of the WRC family.
Yet whilst Estonia’s rise to WRC prominence appears to have happened rather quickly, in reality, it’s been a decades-long process.
To understand where things began in terms of international rallying for this small, Baltic nation of just 1.5 million people, we need to travel back to 2003 - a year in which Justin Timberlake’s ‘Rock Your Body’ topped the charts, Concorde made its last commercial flight, and er.. the second instalment of the Iraq War took place.
In 2003, Estonia was neither a member of the European Union nor NATO. These milestones in the country’s turbulent and oft-bloody history would come the following year.
The Christian Loriaux-designed car was like nothing the WRC had seen before.
The all-new Focus had been designed largely with aerodynamics in mind. This entirely-new approach reflected in its huge rear wing, and an aggressive body kit based on the US-market Focus
To understand the relationship between Märtin and this car, Dyler.com reaches out to Malcolm Wilson OBE; the founder of the M-Sport outfit, who, thanks to his then-role as team principal - a position he held until 2019 - witnessed Estonia’s WRC ascendency first-hand over the course of the the 2003 season.
“The 2003 car was quite radical for its time, and it’s certainly one of the most technically-advanced cars we ever made at M-Sport,” explains Wilson from his office at M-Sport HQ in the United Kingdom’s picturesque Lake District. “Christian [Loriaux] joined us from Prodrive who were running Subaru Imprezas at the time, and he felt we could do a lot more with what we had.
“Markko was - and still is - very good on the technical side of things, and he became heavily-involved with the 2003 Focus. It was very much “his” car, let’s say” - Malcolm Wilson OBE
“Christian decided we should fit the US-spec Focus body kit to the 2003 car, because the bigger front-and-rear bumpers* allowed us to distribute the weight better and achieve a lower centre of gravity. This decision resulted in much more stability for the drivers.”
“In terms of Markko’s involvement with the 2003 Focus, Markko was the sort of guy who if he was happy with the people around him, it gave him a lot of confidence.
“Christian gave him that confidence he needed by keeping him in the loop and telling him what we were doing with that car, and how much better it would be than its predecessor. Markko was - and still is - very good on the technical side of things, and he became heavily-involved with the 2003 Focus. It was very much “his” car, let’s say.”
And Märtin’s car it was. When it made its debut on the 2003 Rally New Zealand, the Estonian quickly toppled the Peugeot 206 of defending world champion, Marcus Grönholm, for the lead and set about pursuing his and Estonia’s maiden WRC win.
Technical issues - a bugbear that would plague the 2003 Focus throughout the season - put pay to Märtin’s victory bid. Yet two rounds later at the Acropolis Rally, one of the hardest, mechanically-punishing events on the WRC calendar, his moment would come.
Märtin’s first WRC win wouldn’t be without issue, though. On Special Stage 5, the Focus hit a fairly innocuous-looking bump, yet the impact saw the bonnet flip open, covering the car’s windscreen and blocking Märtin’s vision for the remainder of the 20 kilometre stage. Now driving blind and relying solely on the pacenotes of co-driver and close friend, the late Michael Park, the Estonian somehow finished the test unscathed.
“I have absolutely no doubt about whether Markko could have challenged for the championship with that car in 2003” - Malcolm Wilson OBE
Over the course of the stage, he lost just six seconds to its eventual winner, Peugeot’s Harri Rovanperä. Afterwards, Märtin told reporters that it was the heat in the Focus’ cabin, a result of dust-blocked, bonnet-mounted air vents, that proved more problematic than his lack of vision.
Come the end of the event, Märtin and the Focus - now with its bonnet fastened down - were WRC winners. A first for the then-28 year old, and a first for Estonia - a country that just 12 years prior, was still part of the USSR.
Whilst the image of Märtin’s Castrol-branded Ford, barreling bonnet-open through the Greek dust is etched into the memory of many a rally fan of a certain age, Wilson believes that his driver’s greatest rally victory came three rounds later on Rally Finland.
Finland is a 90 minute ferry ride across the Baltic Sea from Estonia’s capital, Tallinn. Since 1992, local drivers had held a stranglehold over Rally Finland. That was until 11 years later, M-Sport turned up with Markko Märtin and the Ford Focus RS WRC 03.
Rally Finland’s gravel roads were similar to those upon which Märtin had honed his skills at home as a younger driver. Driving “his car” in conditions he thrived in, Märtin promptly put a stop to Finland’s decade-long dominance of its home event.
After four days, 23 stages, and 409 kilometres, the Ford/Märtin combination won by almost a minute from the Subaru Impreza of the eventual 2003 WRC title-winner, Petter Solberg.
Yet perhaps most impressively of all, Märtin saw off challenges from the Peugeot 206s driven by local heroes Marcus Grönholm and Harri Rovanperä. What’s more, Tommi Mäkinen in the second Subaru, a four-time WRC drivers’ champion, was unable to mount a challenge to Märtin and the Focus.
It is worth noting that at that point, Mäkinen was Rally Finland’s most successful driver with four-consecutive victories between 1994 and 1998.
“It was still quite early days for Markko in terms of his age, but he was already winning rallies and fighting out at the front” - Malcolm Wilson OBE
Not content with schooling the locals on how to win in their backyard, Märtin set the record for the longest jump in WRC history on the fearsome Ouninpohja stage, with a distance of 57 metres at 171 kilometres per-hour. It was very much a vintage WRC performance for the ages.
“The Acropolis was special, but my absolute favourite memory of Markko and that Focus was 2003 Rally Finland,” Wilson recalls. “Rally Finland is the one you want to win if you’re involved in rallying in any way, shape, or form. It’s like the Monaco Grand Prix for us!
“Markko was incredible that weekend, he was so fast,” Wilson continues. “Winning that rally is a big achievement for any driver, especially if they aren’t Finnish.
“To have Markko win Finland, then have Estonia’s then-Prime Minister at the prize-giving at the finish did absolutely incredible things for raising both Estonia’s profile in international motorsport, and rallying in general.”
Rally Finland would be Märtin’s last win in 2003, and he would finish the season fifth on 49 points, 23 behind Solberg. Yet for Solberg’s three DNFs, Märtin recorded five and was disqualified from Rally Australia.
Without the mechanical misfortunes, Wilson is certain that Märtin could have been a title contender 20 years ago, and answers one of two big “what ifs” in relation to his drivers’ career.
“I have absolutely no doubt about whether Markko could have challenged for the championship with that car in 2003,” Wilson says. “At that time, it was still quite early days for Markko in terms of his age, but he was already winning rallies and fighting out at the front.
“If you look at where he was when he had a problem with the car, it was at the sharper end of the timing sheets, so there’s no question about it.
But knowing Markko like I know Markko, then I like to think that there’s no question that he would have eventually come back to us” - Malcolm Wilson OBE
Märtin’s driving style was also significantly different to that of his peers. Whilst the Colin McRaes and Petter Solbergs of this world wowed spectators with spectacular sideways moments, the Estonian drove with little drama.
This clean way of driving was more aligned with circuit racing than the flamboyance that was then associated with the WRC, yet it translated to blisteringly quick stage times. Similar styles have since been attributed to Sébastien Ogier and Kalle Rovanperä; the Toyota pairing who have 9 WRC drivers’ titles between them.
“Markko was always very calculating in his approach,” Wilson continues. “Even from his early days, he was thoughtful about how he did things, and that translated into him being very precise and fast behind the wheel.”
After leaving Ford for Peugeot at the end of 2004 season, Märtin’s career would be cut short when his long-term co-driver and friend, Michael Park, sadly passed away in an accident on the 2005 Wales Rally GB.
Märtin retired from the WRC on the spot. With the exception of a few rallies in Estonia, he has spent the most part of the last 18 years - understandably - shying away from competitive driving.
Undoubtedly, Märtin’s departure from the WRC left another question: would he have eventually returned to M-Sport and won that title he so easily could have fought for in 2003? After all, let’s not forget that this was a driver who by Wilson’s accounts had yet to reach the peak of his powers.
“Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that question, and I don’t think we’ll ever know,” Wilson replies. “That accident in 2005 had an enormous impact on him, and what a lot of people don’t know, is that that Markko was with Richard Burns** when he took ill at the end of 2003.
“But knowing Markko like I know Markko, then I like to think that there’s no question that he would have eventually come back to us.”
Wilson says that final sentence with a lot of affection, and whilst it doesn’t answer any questions, it draws a hypothetical-yet-comforting curtain on a promising WRC career tragically cut short.
Click these yellow words if you are interested in browsing through the range of Fast Fords we have listed on Dyler.com. If you cannot find what you are looking for, M-Sport also has its own selection of Ford rally machinery it has prepared over the years - follow this link to see what’s currently on offer.
What’s more, there are tickets still available for Rally Estonia. You can get yours by clicking here.
* The larger rear bumper also allowed for M-Sport to fit a secret 45-litre titanium boost tank beneath it to provide Märtin and team-mate François Duval with a 5% power advantage. Whilst not illegal, the system was banned by the FIA after three events. You can find more information on how it worked by watching this YouTube video.
** Richard Burns was a British rally driver who won the 2001 WRC drivers’ title. He was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour towards the end of the 2003 season, and passed away aged 34 in 2005. The RB Foundation was founded in his name in 2006 to assist those suffering from brain cancer and other neurological disorders.