Ask most devotees of rallying which is their favourite event, and you’ll usually get one answer: Finland, the spiritual home of the sport, where cars seemingly defy the laws of physics.
And what made the 2021 World Rally Championship season special was that for the first time, we were lucky enough to get Finland twice. The first time was the Arctic Rally: a winter wonderland held close to the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi. Maybe it’s the temperatures that regularly drop to -30°C, or perhaps it’s the fascination that the locals have with eating bear, but this is a rally like no other.
The second visit was to the more traditional roads around Rovaniemi but unusually in October, with a large part of the action in the cold, wet, and dark. Despite that, it was less than 2mph off becoming the fastest rally ever seen in terms of average speed – even with a tight and twisty superspecial included.
Here’s something even more surprising: neither were won by a Finn, with Estonian Ott Tänak triumphing on the Arctic and Welshman Elfyn Evans claiming the spoils in Jyväskylä.
Under normal circumstances, that would prompt a day of mourning but Finnish pride was saved by a new record this year. Kalle Rovanperä became the youngest-ever winner of a WRC event when he was first at the Estonia Rally at the age of 20 years and 289 days. It didn’t take him long to become a two-time winner, after he also claimed the Acropolis Rally.
Kalle is 11 months older than Oliver Solberg, who made his WRC debut in the Arctic Rally and did enough this year to earn himself a factory programme with Hyundai for 2022, giving a foretaste of what looks set to be the decisive battle for supremacy in future years. The emergence of these young Nordic gladiators was one of the most exciting aspects of this unique season.
We should mention another young(ish) driver who distinguished himself: 28-year-old Takamoto Katsuta. Having been dismissed by some as just a protégé of Toyota, he stood out as a decent driver – thanks to his podium on the epic Safari. He’s certainly the best WRC driver ever to come out of Japan.
As for Sébastien Ogier, the Frenchman closed his full-time WRC career with a victory and eighth title after what was probably the very best drive of his career. Even the mighty Sébastien Loeb’s ‘farewell’ appearance on the 2013 French Rally ended up in a ditch. Ogier went out on top of his game, fighting to the very last corner.
A lesser man would have settled for second at Monza; especially after he struck a concrete block on Sunday morning with such force that sparks flew off his front wheel. It could have been all over, within sight of the end. But Ogier was desperate to win his last ‘full-time’ event. And that triumphant moment alone, when he crossed the finish line, was the single biggest highlight of the year.