Winning the World Rally Championship is a culmination of a lifetime’s hard work, dedication and sacrifice. The ultimate reward and justification for all of the hardship that led a driver to that moment.
But it can require a lot of patience to get there. Often drivers don’t reach the peak of rallying until they’re in their 30s, having spent years accumulating the necessary experience to be fast on every surface in every condition.
Or so we thought.
Kalle Rovanperä understood that logic, but did he accept it? No, thank you. At 22, an age most of us are just finally figuring out what we want to do with our lives, Rovanperä is the new World Rally champion.
In doing so, he breaks a WRC record that has stood for longer than he’s been around – 27 years – as the new youngest world champion in history; a mantle previously held by the late, great Colin McRae.
But this pair of superstars aren’t the only two drivers to mature quickly. Here are the 10 youngest world champions in WRC history.
10 Richard Burns
Age: 30 years, 312 days
The champion in a year seemingly nobody wanted to win, Burns was just under two months shy of his 31st birthday when he won the 2001 title.
Runner-up the year before to Marcus Grönholm, the Subaru driver’s season didn’t start too well before it picked up with victory in New Zealand. A cooler head than rivals Colin McRae – who spectacularly crashed in the season finale – and Tommi Mäkinen allowed him to seal the deal with third place in Wales.
Burns would vie for both the 2002 and ’03 titles but had to pull out of the GB finale in 2003 when the brain tumor that ultimately claimed his life two years later began to take its toll.
9 Miki Biasion
Age: 30 years, 280 days
After three years of Finnish domination of the world title, Miki Biasion struck back in 1988 when he claimed his first of two championships for Lancia.
A rising force throughout the Group B period, Biasion hit his stride with the Group A Delta and fell just six points short of the 1987 title, behind team-mate Juha Kankkunen.
But five wins from seven starts the following year made 1988 no contest. Biasion dominated, to become the third youngest world champion in history at the time.
8 Sébastien Loeb
Age: 30 years, 220 days
Eighth place isn’t where you’ll usually find Loeb in the WRC record books – but Loeb was a late bloomer to rallying. So even though he won his first world title in just his second full season (usurping Rovanperä in that regard), he was over 30 when he grabbed the 2004 prize.
In fairness, Loeb very nearly won in 2003. Struck with the uncomfortable quandary of needing to push to win the drivers’ title but also finish to secure Citroën its manufacturers’ title, Loeb was eventually second to Petter Solberg on Rally GB and in the championship.
But there were no such concerns in 2004. Solberg and Markko Märtin tried their best, but there was no catching Loeb who’s crowning glory came on the Tour de Corse – his home round of the WRC.
The rest, as we all know, was history.
7 Sébastien Ogier
Age: 29 years, 294 days
Ending Loeb’s stranglehold on the WRC, Ogier may have ultimately recorded one fewer championship than his fellow Frenchman but he did win his first a year earlier – aged 29 and 294 days.
2013 was a season of vindication for Ogier, who’d fled the Citroën team after a 2011 breakthrough that soon turned sour internally. Accepting a year out of competition to develop VW’s new Polo R WRC, Ogier won an incredible nine of the 13 events to win the title on home ground in France.
A further seven titles would of course follow with VW (three), M-Sport Ford (two) and Toyota (two) over the next eight years.
6 Ari Vatanen
Age: 29 years, 212 days
After years of great speed and even greater promise, Ari Vatanen finally delivered when he steered his Ford Escort Mk2 to the world championship in 1981. He became the youngest ever world champion in the process – a feat that stood for five years.
Vatanen’s season didn’t get off to the best of starts with accidents on both the Monte and Rally Portugal, but things hit top gear with a fine victory on the Acropolis, Rally Brazil and at home in Finland.
Rival Guy Fréquelin was far more consistent, but his sole victory in Argentina left him trailing and Vatanen took the title by seven points.
He’d never win again, but his career represents a massive ‘what if’ after that terrifying Rally Argentina crash in 1985 which oh-so-nearly cost him his life.
5 Petter Solberg
Age: 28 years, 356 days
It’s often forgotten that Solberg took second in the 2002 World Rally Championship thanks to victory on Rally GB, given the dominance Peugeot’s Marcus Grönholm enjoyed.
Based on that fact, it’s perhaps no surprise that Solberg took the title one year on in 2003. But it was a real coming of age season for the Subaru driver who beat a multitude of world champions and young hotshots to the prize with that awesome drive on Rally GB.
In doing so, Solberg became the first (and so far only) Norwegian to win the WRC and became the fourth youngest world champion in history – a position he’s only now lost.
4 Carlos Sainz
Age: 28 years, 189 days
Sainz’ rise to WRC stardom was as impressive as it was rapid, breaking onto the scene in 1987 with Ford, signing with Toyota in 1989 (as it initially struggled to get on top of reliability with its Celica) and winning the world championship in 1990.
But his maiden title-winning season was actually something of a slow burner as it took Sainz until the Acropolis Rally in June to win what was his first ever WRC event. From there, it snowballed. Never off the podium on the next six events, Sainz soared to the title by some 45 points over Didier Auriol.
At the time, it made him the second youngest champion at 28 years and 189 days old but he would of course go onto record the double two years later in 1992, again with Toyota.
3 Juha Kankkunen
Age: 27 years, 249 days
Kankkunen is one of just four drivers on this list to ever hold the distinction of being, at some point in time, the youngest ever World Rally champion. Lowering Vatanen’s record by one year and 328 days when he won his first championship in 1986, Kankkunen clung onto that distinction for nine years.
Signing for Peugeot was a fantastic career move in the mid 1980s as the 205 T16 was one of, if not the, best Group B cars around. And Kankkunen, up against reigning champion Timo Salonen, made it count – victory in Sweden his first of three wins that year.
But it was a season run-in sparked in controversy. The initial exclusion of Peugeot from Sanremo had pitched Kankkunen against Lancia’s Markku Alén in an Olympus Rally finale he looked to have lost, only for the results of Sanremo (which Alén won) to be annulled 11 days later and give Kankkunen the title.
He would then later become the first driver to defend his title in 1987 and to win four titles with further success in 1991 and ’93, before that was then equaled by Tommi Mäkinen and ultimately usurped by the two Sébastiens.
2 Colin McRae
Age: 27 years, 109 days
Plenty of parallels can be drawn between the WRC’s big talent of the ’90s, Colin McRae, to Rovanperä today. Baby-faced and bursting with natural ability with a steely determination to succeed, both ultimately took rallying by storm.
McRae’s 1995 season is the stuff of legend. The Subaru driver had proved he could win rallies before (three times to be precise), but with a reputation for crashing as much as winning it remained to be seen if he could string it all together for a title push.
But Rally Spain lit the fire for what was a momentous Rally GB. Forced to finish second to team-mate Sainz (on a weekend Toyota was caught cheating and expelled from the ’96 championship) due to a team management call he emphatically disagreed with, McRae was untouchable on his home stages to cement his first – and ultimately only – world title at just 27 years old.
Perhaps neatly, it’s a record that also lasted 27 years. But after standing the test of time, McRae’s benchmark hasn’t just been beaten, but shattered.
1 Kalle Rovanperä
Age: 22 years, 1 day
Rovanperä was effectively born to be a World Rally champion. Son of one-time WRC winner Harri, Kalle was driving when most children are playing with their friends or doing their homework – making his competition debut at just 10 years old.
Making his WRC debut seven years later, just weeks after his 17th birthday, Rovanperä was a factory Toyota driver at just 19 and it’s taken him just three seasons to become world champion.
Although he narrowly missed out on sealing it at 21 years old, at 22 Rovanperä is the youngest champion by some five years. Records are there to be broken, but it would take an ultra-special talent to ever take this from him.