A Kalle Rovanperä win next week would not only break records, it would bring a beautiful symmetry to the Rovanperä household, coming two decades after his father Harri’s maiden success on the winter round of the 2001 World Rally Championship.
Obviously, Harri’s win was in Sweden, so perhaps not perfect symmetry, but you know where we’re going. There’s no end of chatter about the potential for the junior Rovanperä, but one of the questions we’ve never really answered is just how good was the old man?
That Harri’s boy will go on to win a cabinet full of WRC trophies is largely beyond question. He’s the archetypal chip off the old block. But is the chip already more sizeable than the block?
Caveating the following with the usual indemnity of not comparing generations… yes.
I don’t know why I feel the need to do this, but I’m doing it anyway: before I dissect Harri Rovanperä’s career, I want it on the record that he has always been – and remains – one of the most straightforward, honest and thoroughly decent drivers I ever had the chance to work with.
His broad stats talk of 111 WRC starts, 15 podiums and that one win in Karlstad 20 years ago. But the big question, the only question: would he ever have made it as world champion? No.
He was in the game and he certainly saw enough of the ball, but it’s worth remembering that in a WRC career which spanned 13 years, he only ever tackled a full campaign in three seasons: 1999, 2002 and 2005. The first and last of those were with Seat and Mitsubishi, so he was missing the necessary metal of a genuine title contender.
In 2002 he was with Peugeot, but he wasn’t quite on the full ticket and was handed a semi-works Bozian Racing-run 206 WRC at the merest hint of asphalt.
The preceding season was Rovanperä’s strongest. He missed Monte and Spain, won Sweden and landed four further podiums to finish fifth in the standings.
For the 12 rallies he started in 2001, he scored 36 points – add his average score from each rally (three points) in for the two he missed and he moves up to 42 points. Such a result would have put him joint second with Colin McRae in the 2001 title race. Two points off the title Richard Burns won.
So, should we reconsider? Could Rovanperä have lifted the title? Statistically, yes. He came close. Realistically? Nah. Much as we can talk of missed opportunity, that has to be balanced with the Finn knocking wheels off the works 206 WRC on back-to-back outings in Argentina and Cyprus.
What Rovanperä had was exceptional tenacity and a steely determination which was too often overlooked. Dropped by Seat at the start of 2000, a then 33-year-old Harri took backing from his manager Timo Jouhki and hired a Toyota Corolla WRC for a pair of gravel outings in Portugal and at home in Finland.
He finished fourth and third respectively, caught the eye of Peugeot team manager Jean-Pierre Nicolas and landed the chance. Winning on his debut in the 206 in Sweden made for the best possible start to a great four-year relationship with the French firm.
Arguably Rovanperä’s greatest asset is his ability to work with the team. He was the consummate team player – something Nicolas quickly understood and led to him nominating the Finn for manufacturer points more often than the 1994 world champion Didier Auriol.
At the end of 2001, there was an expectation that Harri would find that extra gear in 2002. He’d become one of the sport’s greats, but now was his chance to take that next step to challenge for a title. It didn’t happen.
That final percentage couldn’t quite be squeezed out. On the face of it, he had the dream scenario, sharing the sport’s best-funded team with countryman Marcus Grönholm, but ‘Bosse’ was a strong character in that team. Nicolas and team principal Corrado Provera were enchanted with the taller of the two Finns.
Having fought tooth and nail to get where he’d got, Grönholm was generally considered the hungrier of the two (early in Marcus’s career there was an understandable trace of frustration with Finnish drivers who’d benefitted from Jouhki backing).
But don’t go thinking Rovanperä didn’t want it badly enough. His ability to convince Mitsubishi to take him on as team leader in 2005 was a significant achievement for a driver nearing the end of his career, particularly one who’d never really seen eye-to-eye with asphalt.
As he did with all of his teams, Rovanperä demonstrated a real willingness to work with the engineers and a desire to understand the Lancer WRC05 in an effort to bring the Rugby-based team back to its world-beating best.
He didn’t get distracted by team-mate Gigi Galli’s desire to remind team principal Isao Torri of his worth and potential. Instead, Rovanperä buckled down and got on with the job.
That trait was one that ran throughout Harri’s career.
He’s the guy everybody would have loved to have seen make it to the very top. And still is. Talk to anybody in the service park and I challenge you to find somebody with a bad word about him.
Harri laid the foundations. Now it’s time for Kalle to build the house.