How Rovanperä became the hero of someone else’s rally

The reigning world champion wasn't even supposed to be in Poland, yet he emerged victorious


Every story requires a protagonist and an antagonist. Who that is can be subjective; which of those categories Audi or Lancia fell into during 1983 would be down to personal preference, not objective truth.

I do not profess to offer objective truth. But it is my task to somehow offer a clear picture of who the heroes and the villains of Rally Poland were.

Was Kalle Rovanperä the protagonist? Possibly. His efforts were certainly heroic. When Sébastien Ogier crested a rise while recceing the Gołdap stage and found a Ford Mondeo in his path, the original script was thrown in the trash and set on fire.

Ogier is very much the form driver in the World Rally Championship right now – we could easily have been talking about how, with another win in the books, he suddenly needed to be looked at as a serious title contender? Could he be leading the title race after Latvia? All those questions were answered in a manner no-one wanted to see happen – no, he won’t. And none of that really matters. Everyone involved was in and out of hospital within 24 hours – that’s what matters.

With the initial scene setting done, it was Rovanperä’s turn to pick up the mantle of protagonist in waiting. Hollywood would have loved this script. The driver that Toyota was leaning on to ensure it could bring the fight to its arch-rival had been taken out of action and suddenly it was scrambling for plan B. Or, being in Europe, perhaps it was a page from a Michel Vaillant comic – the dastardly Leader team would defeat Jyväskylä’s Vaillante if it couldn’t find a hero to save the day. So it rang a curly-haired youngster wrenching away on a jet ski to save the day.

That storyline loses a bit of sheen when it’s revealed the team’s messiah isn’t really an underdog but a world champion – but hey ho, this isn’t Hollywood. It’s Mikołajki. At least our stories are always the real thing.

What Hollywood could have delivered, but we didn’t get, was a montage. Rovanperä’s recce, his checking of pace notes and video would have been brilliantly illustrated with a montage. One anecdote gave us an insight into the catching up he was trying to execute, having not done one ounce of preparation before his phone rang – a call he very nearly screened – on Tuesday.


Rovanperä was nowhere near as well prepared as his rivals in Poland

“Last night I was watching this video [for SS4] from the laptop, I fell asleep on top of the laptop,” he said. “So the preparation was not so easy. With this road position we should be at least 10s faster than this time.”

This was a running theme. At one point he admitted to being scared, pushing beyond what he was comfortable doing. He knew if he hesitated, he’d be left well behind. So he kept his foot in when the alarm bells were going off in his head. Looking fear in the face and telling it to get lost – it was the act of a true protagonist.

Like any good Hollywood drama, he defeated the obstacles laid in front of him and won the big game. Thrown in at the last minute, he lifted the trophy high, drank the champagne and received the adulation of his team for saving the day. And it’s no understatement to say he saved Toyota’s rally – given Takamoto Katsuta’s struggles at the foot of the Rally1 classification, the 27 points scored by the reigning world champion transformed what would have looked like a disaster into a resounding success.

Scriptwriters love an underdog story. Rovanperä’s wasn’t really one of those. He put in the hard yards, starved himself of sleep and was recceing stages long after the others had finished, thanks to special dispensation. But he is a world champion – he used his finely honed talents to deliver a result that a rival team principal saw coming a mile off. The feel-good underdog story came from M-Sport instead; Mārtiņš Sesks was the young upstart with the odds against him.


Mārtiņš Sesks proved a revelation on his very-first Rally1 start

Rally1 cars are notoriously difficult to adapt to; Andreas Mikkelsen’s struggles on the asphalt rounds this season certainly suggested as much. Sesks, like Rovanperä, was Hollywood – specifically on stage two. He arrived at the stop control and was told he was second-fastest, 0.3s off the pace. His eyes widened, looked into space, then turned right towards Renārs Francis as if to check his co-driver was still real and he wasn’t living in a simulation. Words were hard to come by – he could offer only a high-pitched “What?” In utter disbelief. Then the next logical question – why?

I think I know the answer.

Sesks exceeded all expectations – his own included – and has rightfully received plenty of plaudits. But that does not make him the protagonist. After all, who would be his antagonist? Where does the conflict lie? There wasn’t any. His fifth place was an all-around good news story for the WRC. And we can’t wait to see what the next chapter in Latvia, once his Puma has been equipped with the extra boost of a hybrid unit, has in store.

Rally Poland did have an antagonist. Its name was Bambi.

This rally was not supposed to be about the “one-shot” drivers, the terminology Thierry Neuville concocted for Sesks as he tried and failed to chase him down for fifth place by the end of Saturday’s running.

This was supposed to be an opportunity to embrace the drivers’ championship fight. Neuville would be road sweeping on his least-favored type of rally – fast gravel. Elfyn Evans was finally on a type of rally he knew he felt reasonably at one with the GR Yaris Rally1 underneath him. And Ott Tänak was back on his patch with the best road position of the trio.

Evans would nibble into Neuville’s advantage while Tänak devoured it. We’d end up getting the three-horse race that had been teased but not quite come to pass just yet. And then Bambi decided actually, no, we won’t.

We were given delectable hints of what might have been: Tänak’s rivals could only look on in awe during Sunday’s first stage as, first on the road, he swept them all away despite tackling the largest volume of loose stuff coating the road. His commitment was mesmerizing to watch – the onboard footage was absolute cinema. Even in the moments his i20 N Rally1 chose to provide conflict and understeered off-line, Tänak still collected it up and pressed on unperturbed.

In Disney canon, Bambi is the protagonist. Not here. He ruined this chapter of WRC 2024. Let’s hope this isn’t the beginning of a Hollywood franchise – we don’t want sequels with Bambi’s Latvian and Finnish cousins seeking to avenge his untimely demise.

What we might see, on the evidence of Poland, is Tänak delivering another twist to the title race.

“There are definitely positives,” said Tänak. “I felt quite OK in the car, but in the end it’s very difficult to say. Obviously, we were always in a different road position to everyone else, so I can’t really compare and obviously, like this it’s difficult to see the full potential.”

What little we did see suggested this would have been Tänak’s rally. But, in fairness, that would have denied us the fun Hollywood flick we got. Rovanperä, dropped in the deep end at the last minute and coming out victorious. Mikkelsen, the driver sat in the last chance saloon seeking redemption and managing to prove his worth. Sesks, the young upstart unexpectedly making a name for himself against the odds.

As much as those ‘one-shot’ drivers get in the way of moving the plot along, they do provide great entertainment.