Text: Peep Pahv

Coming from the small Kärla village on the island of Saaremaa The largest island in Estonia(pop. 31,000). , Ott Tänak Ott Tänak is an Estonian rally driver. has never kept it a secret that his goal was to become the World Rally Champion. Many specialists already considered Tänak to be the fastest rally driver in the world a year ago. But due to various problems, he and his co-pilot Martin Järveoja Martin Järveoja is an Estonian rally co-driver. had to settle for bronze.

However, in 2019, it was the Estonians who dictated the course of events. October 27th will be forever written into Estonian sports history, as on this day, Tänak and Järveoja secured the World Rally Championship (WRC) title in Catalonia.

It is not often that athletes from a small country such as Estonia become world champions. It is even rarer for this to happen in a sport like rally which has a global reach. The winner of the WRC series is touted all over global news channels. But who cares about the world and the attention of other nations! In Estonia, probably even the government would not step down on a WRC weekend. At least not before the race is over, because everyone’s eyes are on Tänak’s competition.

The love of your people means a lot, but the athlete’s own will and emotion are the real keys to success. Although the championship title meant the fulfilment of one of his biggest life goals, Tänak’s emotions in crossing the finishing line in Catalonia remained subdued.

“At that moment it was difficult to realise what had happened. The tension which had built up did not just disappear after the finish line,” explained Tänak. “It was such a relief though. Regardless of whether there will be more titles or not, this one is ours forever.”

The biggest fan

“I am Ott’s biggest fan,” claims his father Ivar Tänak in one the scenes of the film ‘ Ott Tänak Ott Tänak is an Estonian rally driver. – The Movie’. His eyes fill with tears at the thought – after all, he has been next to the most famous Estonian sportsman since little Ott first sat behind the steering wheel, supported him on his way to the WRC series, seen days when it seemed to be all over, and then the climb out of the crisis. The father said those words about a year before his son became world champion.

It is unlikely that Ott Tänak Ott Tänak is an Estonian rally driver. would have become world champion in the autumn of 2019, had he not been blessed with such a dad. Aside from his father, the supportive men in his life include another rally legend in Estonia, Markko Märtin, and entrepreneur Oleg Gross Oleg Gross is an Estonian entrepreneur and a politician. .

Gross first saw Tänak drive over a decade ago and realised it was worth investing in the young man. His faith held strong even in the most complicated times when many believed that Tänak was not up to much more than demolishing cars. “Of course I believed in him, otherwise I wouldn’t have invested in him,” says Gross.

Märtin was able to identify that the young rally driver had the qualities of a future champion. Thanks to his experience and contacts, he knew exactly how to get a foot in the door of the rally world. In tandem, they moved higher and higher in the WRC circles. Still today, Märtin remains Tänak’s closest ally.

Ott Tänak Ott Tänak is an Estonian rally driver. is riding a new wave in Estonian sports. Whereas just a few years ago people complained that sport in Estonia was taking a backseat, today the difficult times seem to have passed. Regardless of the small size of the country, there are athletes the nation follows and supports: tennis players Anett Kontaveit Anett Kontaveit is an Estonian professional tennis player. and Kaia Kanepi Kaia Kanepi is an Estonian professional tennis player. , javelin thrower Magnus Kirt Magnus Kirt is an Estonian athlete who competes in the javelin throw. , decathlete Maicel Uibo Maicel Uibo is an Estonian decathlete. and – the favourite with young people – freestyle skier Kelly Sildaru Kelly Sildaru is an Estonian Olympic freestyle skiier. and, of course, Ott Tänak Ott Tänak is an Estonian rally driver. who has been continually visible throughout the year.

Tänak as a national treasure

Those who think that only petrol-sniffing slackers are interested in Tänak’s career are clearly mistaken. Tänak has become a national treasure. In addition to young speed-addicted fans, his world championship rallies are also keenly followed by female pensioners, for example.

Ivar Tänak frequently has to answer people’s questions regarding his son’s whereabouts. “We have a small car repairs shop and, in fact, all our customers inquire about Ott. Some people don’t have a clue about rallying and their questions can be strange. Then we're happy to explain things,” he says.

Understandably, people who visit his garage are drivers and hence more likely to be interested in the rally driver. But what about pensioners and other people who have no general interest in sports? Ivar Tänak has heard about people who have no interest in sports but sit in front of the television watching the rallies. “They even do it with their families,” he says.

A road full of twists

Tänak’s road to popularity has not been without its twists. For years, a reputation of failure followed him. With the help of his mentor Markko Märtin, he made it into the WRC series, but the first entry did not bring a breakthrough. First, he had to sink to the bottom and find himself in a situation in which the end of his career as a rally driver seemed more likely than its continuation. At the same time, he had to tolerate the

cursing of online commentators and the pessimism of the media. In 2013, Tänak did not participate in a single World Championship rally. If someone had said that in six years he would be the most popular athlete in Estonia and win the world championship title, they would have been considered crazy.

But Tänak believed in himself just like some of his faithful supporters. But in order to start moving upward, something had to shift in the young rally driver. The extremely bold youngster, who tended to just push hard on the gas pedal, needed to become a smart driver. He had to develop his interaction skills and become more open. Today we can say he has succeeded.

“I’d like to think that Ott has changed because of me,” says Janika, who met Ott Tänak Ott Tänak is an Estonian rally driver. in 2012 and has become his wife as well as mother to his two children. “Actually, I do not see the change because I don’t know what he used to be like. But I am sure that having a family has influenced him. As a rally driver, he no longer goes to competitions to act out. He has a lot to live for at home.”

Family always comes first for Tänak. Due to his busy schedule – competitions, tests, promotional events – he rarely has time to be home. But when it happens, quality time spent with his wife, son and daughter is a priority. Taking refuge in the domestic idyll is in sync with Tänak’s personality as someone who’d rather avoid public attention. During the rallies, he deals with obligatory duties that accompany racing, but in his spare time he tries to avoid them.

Ogier: Tänak was the right man to end my era

When Ott Tänak Ott Tänak is an Estonian rally driver. became the World Rally Champion, he ended the ruling era of Sébastien Ogier that lasted for six years. According to the Frenchman, Tänak was the right man to do this.

“He is extremely fast and made this year significantly less mistakes than the rest of us – this is enough to win the title,” said Ogier. “Tänak is currently the best rally driver in the world. He is World Champion. A talentless driver would not be able to pull it off. Tänak is able to demonstrate incredible speed at times and I like his style. Mentally it is very difficult to win your first title, but Tänak managed to do it. He did a great job!”

After his return to the rally elite, Tänak has proceeded to go a step further each season. His confidence returned with the help of Malcolm Wilson whilst driving in the M-Sport system. After making his way into the full team member, he reached his first rally victory in 2017 with co-pilot Martin Järveoja Martin Järveoja is an Estonian rally co-driver. . They took four wins a year later and this year, which culminated with the world championship title.

Two years ago, Tänak’s reputation was already so good that the Toyota rally team did everything in their power to hire him. From 2020, Tänak will be competing in Hyundai colours. In the WRC series, all team leaders wish he would sit in their car.

A special love

Rallying has always enjoyed a following in Estonia, but Tänak’s racing has taken interest in this sport to new heights. “Consider Rally Estonia if we didn’t have Tänak, people would not come along with such a large project,” says Urmo Aava, Estonian rally driver who competed in the WRC between 2002 and 2009. “For us, it is the most important thing that Tänak an

d Järveoja will be at the starting line with their WRC car.” Aava has no doubts that rally events would be organised in Estonia even if we didn’t have someone like Tänak in competition, but the level and interest would be much smaller. “If we took the top driver away from the Estonian rally, it would be like a Western without Clint Eastwood,” he says.

Estonian rally fans on WRC rounds have earned a legendary status. Even in the most distant places we can see the Estonian tricolour next to the racing track. In all European rallies, it becomes a sea of blue-blackand-white. News on Tänak’s activities are also very popular. Each action, each word of the idol is meaningful for fans.

The entire country was waiting for Tänak to become World Champion. The tough road full of twists brought the nation together. Whether Tänak’s popularity will bring a second, third or further titles remains to be seen.

Tänak’s unbelievable career

Tänak’s journey to winning the World Championship title is possibly one of the most exhilarating stories ever experienced in WRC’s history. The islander was unable to use the chance given to him by the M-Sport team in 2012. They finished only six rallies without major problems and the only beautiful moment of the season was his first podium finish, when they came third. Back then, Tänak’s co-pilot was Kuldar Sikk.

In 2013, Tänak was not offered a place in the WRC series and many believed that the Estonian’s career was over. Yet, in 2014 he got the chance to race in WRC2 with the R5 car of the DMack team. In addition, he raced in three rallies with the WRC machine. Raigo Mõlder became Tänak’s co-pilot.

In 2015, Tänak was back in the top of the WRC series, receiving a second chance from M-Sport. At the end of the season the Estonian came tenth, but he proved that he can race in a smarter way. After a terrific race in Poland he fought his way to the podium for the second time in his career by beating Jari-Matti Latvala in the last special stage and coming in third. In Mexico he survived the most frightening accident of his life when the car drove into a lake.

In 2016, Tänak raced in the WRC series for the DMack team. This was a true breakthrough season for the islander – he was in eighth place at the end of the season but he proved to be a mature and speedy driver. In Poland, the first rally win of his career slipped out of his reach in a dramatic way when his car tire burst towards the end of the race.

During the season, he made his way onto the podium twice by coming second in Poland and Wales.

In 2017, Tänak changed his co-pilot again and teamed up with Martin Järveoja Martin Järveoja is an Estonian rally co-driver. , again driving for the M-Sport team with Sébastien Ogier as a team mate. For the first time, it seemed that Tänak could really be the guy who could win the World Championship title. During the season, he stepped onto the podium on seven occasions and won the first World Championship rally of his career in Sardinia and a race in Germany. At the end of the season Tänak was third in the WRC series after Ogier and Neuville.

As a big surprise in the season of 2018, Tänak went to drive for Toyota, raising questions about how he would adapt to the new car. Is Toyota fast enough? The questions were answered in the opening rally of the season in Monte Carlo when the Estonian came in second. 

However, there were technical problems that prevented him from going for the title – during the Welsh rally he had to stop while leading and Tänak’s chase of the title was over. The season’s end brought a third place after Ogier and Neuville again. However, five rally wins and two podium places proved yet again that Tänak was speedy enough to win the WRC title.

The year 2019 turned out to be successful for Tänak and Järveoja. Six rally wins and two podium places with just one unsuccessful rally in Turkey were enough to bring home the historical World Championship title one rally before the season’s end!

As of 2022 Ott still keeps the driving wheel in his steady hands bringing glory to the Estonia.

The article was published first in Life in Estonia.

Edited for web by eesti.life.