He’d spent years as the understudy, learning the craft and biding his time. Now, Kalle Rovanperä is the man to beat in the World Rally Championship.
Rovanperä might be 21 years old but he’s not the inexperienced young rookie anymore. And with a 29-point lead in the standings after three rallies, he’s made himself the benchmark in rallying this year.
But on an early May weekend, a few miles outside Irish capital Dublin at Mondello Park, the clock was wound back. Weeks after establishing himself as the man to beat in rallying, Rovanperä was the rookie again.
This was no Monte 2020 repeat though. No need to be cautious in tricky conditions, learn the roads and bank the experience for next year. This was not a Yaris sliding about on icy alpine roads. This was a Supra sliding, very purposefully, on Irish asphalt.
Caution was taken as a rallying rookie. But there would be no caution for Kalle the pro drifting rookie. He went full send. In more ways than one.
It’s a way for the Rally Sweden and Croatia winner to have fun, no doubt. He’s passionate about drifting and has been for years. This is hardly his first time going sideways on the black stuff. Fun doesn’t always have to be laid back, though. And there was a key ingredient that showed he wouldn’t be messing about: his car.
Those who come and go as ‘wildcards’ in Drift Masters Europe are often front-runners at national level having a go at their local round of the European season. Cars that are perhaps a few years older and a little down on power compared to the top cars on the continent.
Rovanperä wasn’t going to settle for one of those cars.
His Supra is straight from Japan. Daigo Saito – himself a multiple drift champion in D1GP and Formula Drift – built it in his Fat Five Racing shop. Saito has turned a Lamborghini Murciélago and Chevrolet Corvette into drift winners before. Taking a Supra, with works backing from TGR, and putting it in Saito’s hands was always going to produce something special.
Now it’s passed into Rovanperä’s hands. And he wasn’t afraid to throw it about. With its short wheelbase, it’s a car that rewards being driven aggressively.
Several times over the weekend, the Supra popped a front-left wheel in the air while being flung sideways, the rear-right dipping over the edge of the track onto the concrete at turn two.
That had set Rovanperä back on his first qualifying run and left him on the bubble. An understandable rookie mistake of over-exuberance, of course. It happens.
Come the pressure of the second and final run, though, Rovanperä did what he’s been doing in rallying. Pulled a big performance out of the bag when it mattered.
93 points. Seventh overall. In a 43-car field.
But that was solo qualifying. Cars on their own. Sunday would present the real challenge: knockout head-to-head battles with cars drifting inches away from one another. The closer you get to mirroring the driver in front, the better you score.
Being the best rally driver in the world isn’t going to help one bit there.
This is Rovanperä we’re talking about, though. He was unfazed. Very unfazed, based on his chase run against Stavros Grillis. He followed the lime green and black Corolla like a hawk swooping on its prey, putting Grillis under so much pressure he forced an error out of the retro Toyota.
As the Corolla over-rotated into a spin at the last turn, Rovanperä had confirmed he was no anxious rookie. He’d forced an experienced rival into an error.
Who’s the rookie now, huh?
Turns out Rovanperä wasn’t the only one there straddling the off-road and drifting discipline lines though. Jakub Przygoński was up next in his GT86.
Przygoński is on the same roll of honor as Carlos Sainz, Ari Vatanen, Bruno Saby and Jean-Louis Schlesser as a world rally-raid champion. But he too knows his drifting.
It was close. Very close. So close the judges literally couldn’t pick a winner. Yes, that’s really a thing in drifting – if after two runs the judges consider you tied, they tell you to go one more time. And so they did.
“The plan is now to drop him,” said Rovanperä after the tie. “That is the only thing we can try to do; a bit more pace and we try to do better.”
If his foot was already to the floor, he was willing to push the throttle all the way into the earth beneath Mondello Park.
Rovanperä went for it, throwing his Supra with such ferocity into the first hairpin that he dipped a rear wheel into that same patch of concrete from qualifying. This time the front-left cocked even higher, somehow continuing to drift seamlessly into the next sequence with only three wheels on the ground.
It hadn’t worked. Przygoński hadn’t been dropped. How much was he willing to put on the line to try and win what was supposed to be a fun distraction from his bid for the world title in rallying?
There were gasps as he came inches from hitting Przygoński through the transitions once, twice, thrice. Then came the final long left-hander. Rovanperä wasn’t willing to slow down, wasn’t willing to give an inch.
Rovanperä experienced something he’ll never get in rallying – car-on-car contact. His Supra’s front-right corner bashed into the side of Przygoński’s GT86 and, while both finished, it was the end of the road for the drifting rookie. The judges had been swayed. There would be no rookie upset as the Finn was eliminated from the Last 16.
“I was quite upset about it as for some reason, it seemed that we lost all the grip already on the first battle,” he said on social media afterward. ” We tried to get even more grip from the tire, dropped the pressure a bit, then [had] even less grip. It was a bit strange.
“We come back here and it seems the tires we put on the rim today were spinning on the rim and that’s why I couldn’t catch up to the car in front on the chase.
“Yeah, it was a big mess.”
The rest of the field should probably be worried. This sounds familiar. This sounds a lot like some of his WRC interviews when things aren’t going quite right.
This is no laid-back Kalle. It’s the same one leading the way in rallying.
We’ll likely never know if Rovanperä could go on to be a championship contender at the top level of drifting. But the strength of his first-ever outing, and that he was upset to be eliminated in the last 16, is a statement in itself.
Count yourself lucky, drifters. You won’t have the same headache as Thierry Neuville, Elfyns Evans and company. And as I’m sure they’ll tell you, right now that’s a very painful headache to have.