There are still two rounds of the 2022 World Rally Championship to go after last weekend’s Rally New Zealand, but we already have our world champion.
Kalle Rovanperä has always been touted as a champion in-waiting, but now the 22-year-old is officially the best rally driver in the world.
It’s a wonderful moment for our sport, capped off in perfect fashion with victory in Auckland. But Rovanperä isn’t the only driver who starred in New Zealand.
Here are Colin Clark’s driver ratings from round 11:
Kalle Rovanperä 10/10
Rally New Zealand result: 1st
What we witnessed here in New Zealand was something very special.
Rovanperä winning the world championship at 22 years and one day of age stands out as one of motorsport’s greatest achievements. Rallying has always been a sport where the received wisdom was that age and experience were almost non negotiable attributes needed to win titles – well not anymore.
His drive here in NZ is right up there amongst his very best and he went about arresting his dip in form in typical Rovanperä style. Yes he was lucky with the weather on Friday, but opening the road was still the least favorable place to be and you’d never have know that by just looking his times alone. He more or less won this rally, and secured the championship, with a flawless, determined drive through the opening 100 miles on day one.
If Rovanperä opens the road on gravel, and is within striking distance at the end of the day, you’d be a very brave person to bet against him. He has developed that intimidatory presence that all great champions have and all rivals fear.
There is no question that he is very much the one to beat these days and it’ll need a step up in performance from his rivals if anyone is to challenge him in his quest to retain the title next season.
We are very privileged to be witnessing something remarkably special here. His achievements this weekend will stand for many, many years and quite possibly may never be bettered.
Sébastien Ogier 8/10
Rally New Zealand result: 2nd
Let’s head back to Rally New Zealand 2010. It’s the final stage and with four corners to negotiate, a precociously talented young Frenchman was about to take his first win in the WRC on the legendary Whaanga Coast of all places.
But it didn’t happen. Ogier spun his Citroën within sight of the flying finish and threw away what would have been a memorable win. He didn’t have to wait long however for that first win, it came on the very next event in Portugal, but he waited a little longer, 12 years longer actually, to have a crack at putting the wrongs of 2010 right in New Zealand.
It was always going to be a big ask however. Ogier’s lack of seat time on gravel meant he was very much on the back foot from the get go. But as always, he still looked a class act and was right there at the end of the opening day and would more than likely have been leading had he not been compromised by damaged aero through the final stage.
It’s very much a sign of where Ogier’s at these days though that he quickly realized the blinding pace being set by young Rovanperä at the front just wasn’t there for him on this one. And with that realization came a willingness to fall into the role of Kalle’s wingman, buffering him from the ever menacing Tänak.
Ogier had always been a team player, but nearly always the team played to Ogier’s tactics and Ogier’s rules. This was different, and although he’s never happy not to be winning, I sensed that Ogier actually quite enjoyed doing his bit to help Kalle take his maiden title.
Elfyn Evans 4/10
Rally New Zealand result: DNF
Led the rally heading into Saturday but as we’ve seen a few times this year, wasn’t able to step up his performance when the stakes were at their highest.
A small mistake on a high speed section on SS9 had disastrous consequences and the damage sustained resulted in an early retirement for Evans on Saturday lunchtime.
He’s far removed from the driver who pushed Ogier all the way in the past two seasons and it’s increasingly clear that these new Rally1 cars are presenting a challenge that Elfyn is struggling to master.
He needs a confidence building result before the end of the year and if Evans is to seriously be present as a championship contender next year then the final two rounds of this season will be critical.
Takamoto Katsuta 3/10
Rally New Zealand result: DNF
For more than two thirds of this event, Taka-san seemed to be slowly banishing those deamons that so visibly haunted him during a torrid Acropolis outing.
OK, there still wasn’t the pace that we know is there, but he was methodical and cautious in his approach and was more or less drama free. And then he went and undid all that good work on SS12 by putting his car off the road and a fair distance down an unforgiving bank.
The margins that dictate success or failure at the very highest level in our sport are fine and very often it comes down to confidence – and right now, on gravel at least, I’d suggest Katsuta is struggling with a crisis of confidence.
Putting that right with the season ending Rally Japan looming large on the horizon has to be his number one priority in Spain in just a few short weeks’ time.
Ott Tänak 8/10
Rally New Zealand result: 3rd
Tänak was not only beaten by two Toyotas on this event, he was also beaten by his own team. It is clearly an enormous, ongoing frustration for Ott to not have a consistent and predictable car underneath him. But in some ways he has adapted to that and is capable of bullying and cajoling the Hyundai in a way that allows him to, just about, battle for the top spot.
But when you’re putting everything on the line to extract every last drop of performance out of a difficult car, the last thing you need is to be penalized for administrative errors from the team. Those penalties that dropped Tanak from the lead on Saturday morning, coupled with further transmission issues, sucked all the fight from the usually rock solid Estonian.
Tänak’s championship challenge is over for another year and I’m really not sure how much more of this he will be willing to accept.
Thierry Neuville 6/10
Rally New Zealand result: 4th
Neuville’s challenge for back-to-back wins in the championship was over almost as soon as it had begun. Two early spins meant that Thierry had to rely on the misfortune of others to even get himself close to a podium position.
The Hyundai Rally1 car is an unpredictable beast and Neuville will be frustrated by the the fact that it’s bitten him badly a few times this season.
I’m sure he’s also frustrated by the fact that when it’s good, it’s actually extremely good. But inconsistency in performance is far from ideal and Neuville will I’m sure demand a redoubling of the efforts from the team to give him what he needs.
Oliver Solberg 6/10
Rally New Zealand result: 5th
Once again plagued by reliability issues that scuppered any chances of building good pace, Solberg somehow managed to doggedly stick to the task in-hand and bring his car home in a creditable fifth position.
Glimpses of the speed that we know is there will be little consolation to young Oliver who knows he needs to start showing an upward progression in both pace and performance.
But to do that he needs to have confidence in the car and right now, certainly on this event, that wasn’t there. Trying to establish yourself as a young driver at the sport’s very highest level is never easy but I think we need to cut Solberg a little slack and, looking at the whole situation, understand that he faces challenges that make these formative years far from ideal.
Craig Breen 2/10
Rally New Zealand result: 19th
An unmitigated disaster of an event for Breen. Another mistake, that’s four in the last five rallies, has left a big question mark over Craig’s ability to cope with the snowballing crisis that seems to be enveloping the affable Irishman.
Something is not right in the Breen camp just now, and I don’t know if it’s down to confidence, preparation, expectation or just bad luck. I know it’s not down to talent – he has bucketloads of that, but we’re just not seeing it right now and something has to change rapidly.
M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson has shown patience and understanding up to this point – but that well of patience must surely be close to drying up.
The championship needs an on-form Breen, when he’s gets things hooked up his joyous presence lights up our screens. But that light right now is flickering badly and is in imminent danger of being extinguished unless things can be rapidly turned around.
Gus Greensmith 5/10
Rally New Zealand result: DNF
A massive shunt and retirement from the event on Saturday didn’t really seem to faze Gus too badly. As he pointed out, if you want to mix it with the big boys then you have to continually challenge your limits. And that’s exactly what he did for a fair chuck of this event.
A first stage win on gravel was exactly the confidence boosting start Greensmith needed and Friday’s 100 miles were probably the best we’ve seen yet from him.
Despite one the biggest crashes of his career, this event will very much go down as a step in the right direction for Gus.
Lorenzo Bertelli 3/10
Rally New Zealand result: 7th
We don’t see enough privateers in the championship these days so it was great to see the stylish Italian making a welcome return.
Bertelli brings a brilliant livery, a close to the edge team name and a brilliant beaming smile to the championship and for me thats’s more than enough.
With so little experience of this machinery it was absolutely no surprise to see him struggling out there but he stuck at it, looked after his car, made precious few errors and came home with decent points.
Ciao Lorenzo – very much hope to see you back again soon.