Can anyone stop Rovanperä anymore?

David Evans looks back on another Kalle Rovanperä masterclass in Portugal


Where did Kalle Rovanperä win Rally Portugal? Take your pick. A barnstorming run through the Fafe powerstage is the obvious one. Or Sunday morning’s opener through Felgueiras, where he demoralized Elfyn Evans by nicking another couple of seconds.

I beg to differ.

How about last thing Saturday morning, the first time through Amarante? You’re right, the championship leader did lose 8.2 seconds to Evans on the event’s longest stage, but it was a calculated sacrifice. Rovanperä was running worn, soft Pirellis on the rear of his Yaris. To contain the time loss to just eight seconds was something special.

Without getting too scientific or delving too deeply into the psychological side of things, the impact of a performance like that through the 23-miler is two-fold. You don’t ship as many seconds as you might have and you get in your rival’s head. The two Toyota men knew who was on what when it came to covers on Saturday. Both knew Rovanperä had done a job.


And if you’re not convinced by the Amarante argument first time around, you simply have to be second time through – that’s where the Finn usurped the Welshman to move to the top of the timesheets.

And once Rovanperä had his nose in front, nothing and nobody was going to stop him.

Talking to Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala on Saturday night, he was utterly adamant there would be no team orders. No matter how we tried to cut it or put it to him, he was having none of it. No. J-ML was victim of a strategic finish on more than one occasion in his time and he simply won’t put his drivers through the same thing he went through.

Or at least not until there’s a title on the table. Then he will.

So who had the most to lose on Sunday?

Rovanperä’s the obvious one. He was the one sitting on a 29-point lead. I tried to explain the proverb of the bird in the hand being worth two in the bush. He got it. Sort of.

Except he clearly didn’t. Come Sunday he took both birds and the bush.

“When I see a chance, I have to take it,” he said.

Clearly Rovanperä’s a man looking in a different place to most when it comes to chances right now.

Thinking sensibly, Evans was the one who had the most at stake with a risk-all run to the finish. He started Portugal 59 points south of the championship leader. Stack a DNF and perfect 30 for Rovanperä onto that and an 89-point deficit would look like a proper mountain to climb across the next nine rallies.


As it is, a 70-point gap is just a very, very big hill.

The important thing is that Evans has put some foundations down. His start to the season has been fairly miserable and losing to Rovanperä was the last thing he needed – or anybody needed – in terms of a championship challenge, but the last three rallies have shown Evans that things could be an awful lot worse.

Can anybody stop Rovanperä?

Right now, it’s hard to see. This is the land of the biggest of big waves – Matosinhos is just along the coast from Nazare, the home of the world’s highest wave. And that’s the one Rovanperä is riding right now.


In the zone, purple patch, cracking run of form, call it what you will, that’s where you’ll find him residing and when you’re in that place, things generally run your way. The pressure’s released and drivers develop more capacity to make things work.

The only fly in Toyota’s ointment was a fairly miserable event for Sébastien Ogier. The defending champion called Portugal his second home ahead of the event and it is a very special place for the Frenchman – it’s where he won his first ever round of the World Rally Championship in 2010.

By the end of the rally, he was a little bit more precise on the exact location of that second home – it’s further south in Faro, where the event used to be based. Ogier’s event was spoiled by successive punctures on Friday. By his own admission, he hadn’t found the sort of rhythm he’d been hoping for before then.

Prior to the event, we’d spent literally hours banging on about how Portugal represented chapter two in the epic renaissance story that is Ogier v Loeb, the rematch. You can hardly blame us – remember Monte Carlo and round one? That was a down-to-the-wire stunner which went in Sébastien Loeb’s favor. The M-Sport Ford driver gave the Puma Rally1 a debut win in the Alps. Could the pair of them recreate that magic in Portugal?


As you’ve just read, Ogier’s event went south early doors, but while the younger of the two Frenchmen struggled to find form in a gravel-spec Yaris, Loeb was bang on the pace in the Puma. He led after the first loop before taking a wheel off on the first corner of Friday afternoon.

Talking to Loeb afterwards, the frustration was massive. He knows he doesn’t make these sort of mistakes. He knows what might have been.

Standing next to him as he looked at the forlorn Ford with its right-rear wheel cast firmly back into the wheel arch, it was some comfort that he hadn’t lost his sense of humor.

“I think that might be the title over…” he smiled thinly.

Loeb’s event was representative of M-Sport’s rally in microcosm: plenty of promise, but not the result it would have wanted.

Craig Breen would go home disappointed, but the Irishman has put valuable miles down in the Puma. And nobody knows more than him that a rapid return to the podium would be a good thing.

Gus Greensmith was out of luck with punctures again, but his cracking run through SS2 is further evidence of an entirely capable driver. He deserved more from his rally. Adrien Fourmaux did exactly what he was told to do and Pierre-Louis Loubet showed more promise and more pace.


Can we say Hyundai showed pace and promise? Hmm. What do you think?

When Dani Sordo battled his way onto the podium’s bottom step at the expense of Takamoto Katsuta’s Toyota, we have to say things can’t be all bad. But to counter that, there was Ott Tänak admitting ‘everything’ had to change with the car.

Tänak endured another frustrating event, sliding down the leaderboard with tire problems on the opening afternoon.

Which brings us neatly to the question of when a puncture’s not a puncture. The Estonian was very clear in his analysis of the situation – he felt Pirelli was being treated harshly for what he saw as a unique set of conditions.

Tänak wasn’t alone.


There were a significant number of drivers knocking tires off the rim as the ruts grew deeper and deeper. Conditions in Portugal were like nothing ever seen either down south in Faro or in the north around Porto before.

And once the route turned away from the roads around Arganil and headed north towards Fafe, conditions improved significantly. And the tire issues were far less pronounced.

Yes, you’re right, those of you out there keenly pointing out that Sardinia will be tough, Safari event harder on the hard compound Scorpion, but Pirelli remains confident the problems in Portugal will remain specific to that event. Let’s talk about this one more in the coming weeks and months, once we’re through Alghero and on the other side of Kenya.

One man looking forward to Sardinia will be Sordo, having won on the Italian island for two of the previous three years. And the Spaniard goes there with his confidence justifiably high. WRC Sunday after Sunday, we’ve seen Sordo usurped in a final-day fight. Not this time. Not this Sunday.

He dug in and delivered a sensational drive to relegate Katsuta to fourth. Given that this was his first time in the car this year, and a brand-new car to him at that, I was mighty impressed with Dani’s drive – and yes, I’m more than well aware he had arguably the best place on the road on Friday.

The other thing I was impressed with in Sardinia was the Portuguese police. Rarely if ever have I come across an event so well policed with such an amazingly friendly bunch.

Certainly Sunday was the first time I’ve had Armindo Araújo interrupt a Rovanperä interview because he’d been accompanied by a local sergeant asking if he thought he might be able to snag a picture with the rally winner.

They couldn’t have been more helpful or more friendly. The only downside to the organization came on Sunday afternoon when the service park was emptied of fans at precisely the moment Rovanperä was returning to celebrate with his team.


I’m guessing this was a health and safety thing, given that the teams were in the process of breaking the service park park – not that that came as much consolation to the two British fans who were among the significant number of spectators understandably frustrated at missing out on watching the winners party.

Overwhelmingly, Portugal was positive last week and no more so than for our apparently runaway and utterly ruthless championship leader.

The future of the WRC has a very Finnish flavor to it, but last week was a good time to look back too. WRC Promoter laid on some enormously impressive 50th season celebrations ahead of the event, but it was a Sunday visit to Fafe which put things into genuine historical perspective.


Grinning at the sight of DirtFish branding, Andre whipped the Portuguese flag from around his shoulders to reveal a faded and, in all honesty, pretty tired looking blue jacket. Don’t get me wrong, it was an entirely serviceable anorak. But when he pointed to the Alpine branding, he got even more excited.

“This road,” he said, pointing at arguably the world’s most recogniseable rally jump, “this road here in Fafe. Nothing has changed. In 1973, when it all started, [Jean-Luc] Therier came down here and won in [Alpine-Renault] A110.

“This road.”

Half a century on and the road has some stories to tell – few of them more entertaining than the one about Kalle, Jonne and their Toyota.