Tallinn - Historically, the terms "Estonian" and "bad ass" have rarely been linked together. Sure there are those distant rattles of the Viking age. The proud days of the Estonian war for independence in 1918. But for the most part, Estonian males have been relegated to the pub for the past 80 years. Their country was liberated by song festivals. Their politicians are either rotund populists like Edgar Savisaar, or clinical suits like Juhan Parts. Their most successful athletes, like Olympic gold medal winner Erki Nool, peddle sausages in TV commercials.
Always the shyer and more aloof sex of the shy, aloof Estonians, it takes a lot to get the Estonian male's heart racing these days. Ironically though, it has been a racecar driver called Markko Martin who has been doing just that.
As the last minutes of 2003 ticked down, a popular radio program called "Vox Populi" was eliciting calls from the public for 2003's Man of the Year. And in they came - Markko Martin. Markko Martin. Markko Martin.
For starters, he isn't just any racecar driver. He doesn't do monotonous laps around tracks. He is a World Rally Championship racer - the fastest one at that - and that is an interesting honor, knowing what WRC racing is.
Any Estonian participating would have gained some recognition in small Estonia - but Markko Martin isn't your standard Estonian. The 28-year-old Tartu native inherited the sport from his father, and was racing a souped up Lada in his first international competitions several years ago when he was spotted and brought to WRC racing, originally for the Subaru team before moving to the Ford team in 2002, which he took the lead of the following year.
While often described as the usual "reserved and introspective" Estonian, Martin has been carving new niches for his many fans back home through the international competitions. His press commentary is competitive and confident.
After he won the WRC Rally Finland in Aug. 2003, he said he enjoyed it because he "always wanted to beat the Finns on their home turf."
When asked if he was worried that his performance at the Great Britain rally in Wales last November would take points away from the favored competitors (including his former team mate Petter Solberg) Martin said he simply "didn't care." He was there "to win."
Not caring is one trait of Martin's that has boosted his persona at home. While local tabloids attempt to speculate about his private life - they just can't seem to figure anything out about him other than he enjoys driving fast. And Martin doesn't help them out because he is too busy racing.
One thing they do know about him is that he recently relocated to millionaire friendly Monaco to skimp on his tax payments to the Estonian state. While he remains an Estonian citizen, he will now be living his very private life in Monaco, a stone's throw from Monte Carlo, where he is favored to win the first WRC rally of 2004 in late January.
One stand alone moment in Martin's career was his performance at the WRC rally in Greece in June 2003 where a broken ventilator duct in his car left him and his navigator Michael Park sweltering just as the hood of his car opened up, forcing them to drive blind, with only notes to guide them. Regardless, the pair completed the stages of the rally to win. Afterward Martin quipped that in Estonia they usually relax after taking a sauna - so he wasn't used to having to drive for so long in such conditions.
This kind of competitive and confident character has buoyed the spirit of even former Prime Minister Siim Kallas who was given a spin in Martin's famous Ford Focus with the two posing for a brief photo-op afterward.
"Markko is a such a great sportsman, and he's a great ambassador for Estonia," the former PM glowed to the press
Being seen as an ambassador of Estonia is quite a realistic way of putting it. Everywhere he races, Estonian flags are held proudly aloft among his fans. Commentators even joked that because of the colors, Rally Finland looked more like Rally Estonia.
With a fifth place WRC ranking in 2003, and English language Web fan pages touting him as an "Estonian bad ass," it must be said that Martin has boosted the self-esteem and morale of Estonian manhood, keeping their eyes firmly glued to WRC racing. In 2004, fans are counting on him winning the championship. Knowing Martin, it is something he plans to do.