The new Rally1 cars that now headline the World Rally Championship had plenty of people talking before last week’s Monte Carlo Rally.
Reduced aero, the loss of an active center differential and a return to a five-speed (from six) gearbox with a sequential shifter instead of a trick paddle-shift system drew several comparisons to Rally2 machines.
Some said that those drivers with more recent experience in these second-tier cars would be at an advantage, and likewise the younger drivers, who have fewer WRC starts under their belts, would be able to negate their experience deficit as rallying’s premier championship headed into the brave unknown in the hills above Monte Carlo.
Ironic then that Kalle Rovanperä, the leading member of that generation tipped to prosper from this rule reset, found himself trailing a Rally2 car in his brand-new GR Yaris Rally1 after Thursday evening’s pair of stages.
Rovanperä is an ice-cool Finn. He doesn’t do embarrassment. But for a driver of such prodigious talent, this was surely as close as he’s ever come to feeling inadequate behind the wheel.
A spin on the opening stage didn’t help his cause, but to be sitting over a minute behind his rally-leading team-mate Sébastien Ogier after just 24 miles of rallying and adrift of Eric Camilli’s Citroën C3 Rally2 was, in a word, shocking.
“I think the balance of the car is really tricky for me to drive,” Rovanperä assessed after the second stage on Thursday.
“I tried to do my best to adapt for it, but if the balance is a bit more to the understeering [side] then it’s quite difficult for me.”
That was a trait Rovanperä had feared might undo his weekend before it had begun. Speaking in his media session last Wednesday, he confessed that “overall there is some work to do with the balance of the car and the setup” and “there is still some work to do to make it really feel good.”
But 42.8s off the pace on SS2 in particular; this was not a level of performance we’d ever seen from Rovanperä before. And it was deeply worrying that things didn’t seem to improve on Friday either as it was “still quite a big struggle for me to really be confident in the car.”
Across the day’s six stages he would only set one top-six stage time, and his deficit to the leader (now Sébastien Loeb’s Ford Puma Rally1) swelled to 2m12.8s.
“I think the team-mates are showing how the car is performing,” Rovanperä conceded, with Ogier and Elfyn Evans up in second and third place.
“It should be good but for us it’s not so easy. We’re doing all the time a lot of changes to the balance of the car, trying to get it better for me.
“Already in the afternoon when the balance was a bit better I could start to learn the car a bit easier and [it was] better for me, so we could be a bit better pace in the afternoon.”
Rovanperä was effectively testing while on the rally. He wasn’t finding a setup with his Yaris that was working, but he was equally aware that he also had to adjust his technique to suit the new car too.
“Before I was always driving like I drive now but now I have to change it quite a lot to suit this car a bit better,” he said.
“Basically before I was driving quite a lot with like circuit-style driving style on Tarmac, quite like, not maybe the smoothest always but how I used the brake and everything was quite like on the circuit and now I have to go a bit back to more like rally style to be a bit more aggressive with the car.”
Rovanperä looked relaxed and composed when facing the media, but team principal Jari-Matti Latvala noticed that his driver was frustrated.
Friday evening was time for a Latvala pep talk.
“Kalle was slower than an R5 in the beginning and we were really like, how to say, a bit frustrated and we were really surprised and it was difficult to understand what’s going on,” Latvala told DirtFish.
“And then Kalle came and you could see he was very angry with himself and he was really frustrated. It was because the mindset was a bit wrong at the beginning of this event because he was still thinking too much [about] the old car, and what the old car did.
“And he was thinking too much about that rather than concentrating [on] ‘OK this is a new car, we have to drive it to the benefits of this car and I need to just adapt to it’.
“But this is the strongest point of Kalle then. When he realized that, then he did some setup changes as well which was helping at the same time, but he’s a very fast learner. He can so quickly turn the ship around.”
Turn the ship around he did. With changes to the “suspension, differential and everywhere” Rovanperä was back on the pace that he – and everyone else – expected from him.
“He was more than two seconds per kilometer faster on Saturday than on Friday and normally if you lift up that kind of speed you don’t keep yourself on the road anymore, so you see how quickly he can learn as well,” added Latvala.
And he was bang on the money. As poor as Rovanperä’s start was, the turnaround was extraordinary. It was almost as if a completely different driver had taken the controls for the final two days.
Having failed to break into the top-five times all weekend, Rovanperä was never outside the top three on Saturday – winning both SS12 and SS13 – to leap from ninth to fourth (albeit assisted by some issues for others) over the space of just five stages.
“It’s nice to see that finally when I can be a bit more comfortable in the car and with the setup, I can start to drive my own driving style and speed,” Rovanperä said at the end of the day.
“Of course in the beginning it was really a struggle to even see the times, and know that you can do much more than that before you get something sorted out. And now to be at a normal pace and also starting to enjoy the driving a bit, it’s nice.
“I think now is the feeling in the car we should have had in the first evening, but I think it’s already a big step and we have to be happy and try to continue in the same way and see what we can do tomorrow.”
What I did when it didn’t go well, I just lift up the speed. I just forced it more and then I had an accident.Jari-Matti Latvala teaching Rovanperä not to repeat the same mistakes he made
Tomorrow was Sunday, and it was a more low-key leg for the Finn. Catching Craig Breen up the road in third would be rather optimistic, so a more cautious approach was adopted – including some tire saving for the powerstage.
But that final points-paying stage was significant as Rovanperä blitzed it, beating even Ogier, who was on a mad dash to try and recover the lead he had lost to Loeb on the penultimate stage with a puncture. Such was Rovanperä’s speed that even when Ogier’s jump-start penalty was applied, he was still quickest.
As it transpired that was perhaps “not so optimal” as with Breen backing off and Loeb and Ogier not entering Sweden, Rovanperä will be the road sweeper on day one. But nevertheless a clear point was made to the rest, even if Rovanperä was left feeling like he needed to do much better.
“Of course we need to improve a lot and now when we go to the snow and at some point gravel, it’s going to be completely different then,” he said.
“We need to do a lot of work and we have to be on this pace in the beginning of the rallies, like always. We cannot afford to miss rallies like this.”
But that impressive turnaround, surely that pleased him?
“That’s a big difference for sure,” he said when it was put to him that he went from slower than a Rally2 to quicker than anyone over the course of the weekend.
“I didn’t even believe myself that we could be so much better. We did everything we could and finally got the car much better. That way I could start to learn the car myself and try to adapt to it.”
Latvala was also impressed, not just by Rovanperä’s recovery but the manner in which he did it too. Even if Rovanperä actually was frustrated, he never let that emotion affect his driving when things weren’t going swimmingly.
“This I also said to him when he was not going well,” said Latvala.
“I said ‘just drive it what feels OK and try to get to the end’ because what I did when it didn’t go well, I just lift up the speed. I just forced it more and then I had an accident.”
But there was no accident from Rovanperä, never really the hint of it. Instead, he pulled off an incredible salvage job that clearly underlines his credentials as a title hotshot this season.
At least in Sweden if he does start slowly he’ll have a more than valid excuse for it.