He’s done it! Kalle Rovanperä is now a two-time World Rally champion. But unlike last season, the Finn really had to work for it.
Four rounds into 2022, Rovanperä had won three of the events. Four rounds into 2023, he had three non-podium finishes. It would be wrong to say it never looked like Rovanperä would retain his crown, but it was certainly no foregone conclusion.
In the end, the Finn put the championship beyond the reach of his team-mate Elfyn Evans on the penultimate round with second place on the Central European Rally.
Here’s a look at how Rovanperä reached that position in a year where four different drivers took turns at the head of the championship:
Ogier does the unthinkable
With no Sébastien Loeb to battle like he had in 2022, Sébastien Ogier was widely expected to secure a record-breaking ninth Monte Carlo Rally – and that’s exactly what he did, although Rovanperä was a fighting second.
Skipping the trip to Sweden where Hyundai’s Craig Breen starred but victory ultimately went to M-Sport’s Ott Tänak – who led the championship for the first time since he became champion in 2019 – Ogier returned for Rally México and was again tipped to impress with an enviable starting position of fifth.
New Hyundai recruit Esapekka Lappi surprised many to lead Ogier overnight, but a big crash on Saturday morning paved the path clear for Ogier who recorded a second win from as many starts in 2023.
Incredibly, full powerstage points too lifted the eight-time champion to the top of the championship despite the fact he had missed an event.
Elfyn Evans perhaps put it best when he remarked that Ogier was making the full-time drivers look a bit silly.
Rovanperä off the boil
Although he made his best ever start to a season with second on the Monte, Rovanperä’s season plateaued from there as he couldn’t get onto the podium for any of the next three events.
In Sweden the world champion fought with understeer and was only fourth, while running second on the road in México menat fourth was all he could do – but he was uncharacteristically off the boil on the powerstage, running wide and shedding his rear spoiler.
A puncture in Croatia put paid to his challenge early on, but his pace wasn’t exactly epic either as Ogier, who had punctured in the same place, almost overcame a one-minute time penalty to close in on Rovanperä overall.
Three fourth places in a row left the 22-year-old a touch frustrated, who was without a win since becoming world champion: “I’m not really worried about that,” he said, “it will come when it comes, hopefully. I’m just disappointed from myself.”
Rivals falter as Rovanperä responds
Rovanperä wouldn’t have to wait long, as a stunning return to form in Portugal could not have come at a better time. The Finn won, while the seasons of all his main rivals began to unravel.
After a lackluster 2022 Elfyn Evans outlined his credentials with victory in Croatia which lifted him to the top of the championship. But it was a poisoned chalice as that meant he was road-sweeper in Portugal. The Welshman was dealing with that well, but a monster shunt late on Friday ruled him out of the weekend.
Thierry Neuville looked like he would be the man to lead the championship after Croatia, as he led the way until he was caught out on Saturday morning. In Portugal he was all set to be promoted two places with his two Hyundai team-mates second and third, but turbo problems meant he actually finished fifth – usurped by Tänak.
But Tänak himself wasn’t a happy chappy as the WRC hit the gravel, and so began a torrid run of form where mechanical dramas and a lack of comfort in the Puma Rally1 kept the 2019 world champion off the podium from Croatia in April all the way to Rally Chile in September, by which time his championship chances had been eliminated.
The Finland crash
Neuville finally got off the mark for 2023 in Sardinia, profiting from a rare Ogier error, while the Toyota driver got his revenge in Safari with a slightly tense victory over team-mate Rovanperä, marred by mild internal politics.
As Ogier took the summer to spend time with his family, up stepped Rovanperä with a truly dominant performance in Estonia – winning all 13 of Saturday and Sunday’s stages to shift the narrative from when, not if, he would win a season that had, prior to Portugal, looked to be so close.
But then Rally Finland happened. Leading his team-mate Evans as he started the eighth special stage, it looked as if the Finn would finally win his home event. But too much oversteer through a slippy, and sweeping, right-hander sent his Toyota to the inside and into an end-over-end roll. Sensationally, the championship leader was out.
It was a gift Evans grabbed. Going on to win the rally, and the powerstage, to score the full 30 points was the perfect way to punish Rovanperä who suddenly was within a rally victory of Evans.
Evans crashes, Rovanperä gets it done
Evans’ form in the back half of the season was sensational with three podiums on the bounce in Finland, Acropolis and Chile, but victory for Rovanperä in Greece was bad news for Evans as it allowed him to open the gap up once more.
Evans nicked two points back from Rovanperä in Chile, but realistically he knew he needed more. Starting the all-new Central European Rally, he faced a 31-point deficit with Rovanperä simply needing to beat his rival to secure a second championship title in as many years.
Rovanperä was living up to his end of the bill halfway through the event, leading the rally with Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai splitting the two title chasers. But then Evans handed it to him on a plate, sliding his Toyota into a barn on SS11.
With no need to win, Rovanperä backed off and claimed second place which was ample for him to claim his second consecutive WRC title.