Four months into last year’s World Rally Championship season, Kalle Rovanperä was 46 points up the road.
At the same point in 2023, he lies third in the points – albeit just one point adrift of his two tied team-mates Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans.
Such was the quality of his start, a Rovanperä title win was a guarantee in 2022, but in 2023 he’s going to need to fight all the way if he’s to defend it.
The Toyota driver has openly admitted he hasn’t been at his best yet this season, but with just one podium finish from four and no wins since he clinched the championship in New Zealand last October, is Rovanperä performing well enough for a reigning champion?
We put that very question to their writers ahead of this week’s Rally Portugal, and here’s what they had to say:
He’s falling short of his own standards
Twelve months ago, the idea of Kalle Rovanperä needing a win was laughable. Now, he’s struggling to get onto the podium at all let alone stand down from the top of it.
There are several reasons why. Hyundai hasn’t started this season on the back foot like it did last term, and team-mate Evans is on top of the Rally1 car now too. So Rovanperä’s rivals are much stronger, and therefore the Finn hasn’t been able to throw them into the shade.
But Rovanperä isn’t yet posing the same threat to the rest that he once was either.
It feels to me there’s been a definite shift in his demeanor this season. With his career goal of becoming world champion now ticked off, Rovanperä looks uber relaxed. Which is a great thing, but (from the outside at least) he perhaps doesn’t look quite as motivated to win as Thierry Neuville or Ott Tänak do.
He doesn’t care what others say about the fact he hasn’t won in seven months, or since he’s been world champion, but I feel this drop in form stretches back to last year and the moment he sealed the title. Straight after New Zealand, in Spain, he didn’t seem up for a fight with Ogier, while in Japan he made a rare, and fairly simple, driving error.
Some more mistakes, particularly regarding setup, have begun to creep into his game this year too.
Ogier’s making this year’s title fight a complex affair – rocking up for some of the season, setting the pace and winning rallies. Without Ogier for example, Rovanperä would’ve won the Monte.
But then, at least in my opinion, Rovanperä was the weakest of the three works Toyotas in January (Evans finished behind but should’ve been ahead were it not for a puncture). Tänak and Craig Breen were clearly the class of the field in Sweden while Ogier was the undisputed master in México and arguably Croatia too.
Rovanperä hasn’t been the strongest driver anywhere.
It’s by no means been a bad start to his title defense this season – it simply can’t be classed as anything less than solid given he’s still second in the championship and only one point off the summit.
But nobody’s talking about Rovanperä obliterating all the records set by Loeb and Ogier anymore, are they? Currently, he’s falling short of the standards he set himself in 2022, which is why 2023 feels disappointing thus far.
Others are twisting the picture
I’ll answer a question with a question. Is Kalle Rovanperä performing well enough? Is Kalle Rovanperä one point off the lead of the World Rally Championship?
It’s a yes and yes from me.
We talked about this a lot in this week’s edition of SPIN, The Rally Pod (Listened yet? If not, why not? You can do so below) and the reason for this question being asked in the first place is because of his outstanding start to last season.
This time last year, Rovanperä was 46 points ahead in a title race he would lead to the finish. He’d won three from four. But, almost as importantly, look at the results from the first four rallies for his nearest rivals.
None of his four nearest challengers had won. Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak were still reeling at the early performance and reliability from their Hyundai – they managed a podium apiece, but were a long way away in terms of pure pace.
Takamoto Katsuta was third in the championship 12 months ago, following a brace of fourths, a sixth and an eighth. Elfyn Evans had been in the top-three twice, but disappearing off the road backwards on round one and crashing out of Sweden dented his confidence and undoubtedly led to the speed being dialled back for the next two rallies.
All of the above helped pave the way for Kalle’s early march.
So far this year, we’ve had three different winners in four rallies. Performance is more evenly matched, there have been fewer mistakes and everybody you’d expect to be in the thick of the fight is in there.
In a nutshell, Rovanperä did all he could in Monte, cleaned the road in Sweden, was a bit off the pace in México and had a puncture in Croatia.
Possibly he could have done more in Guanajuato, but that one just wasn’t going his way – losing the rear wing on the powerstage typified the rally for him.
Arguably, you could say he was performing better than ever: he had the sense to wind it back and take the points where he could. That maturity is, surely, the mark of a champion.
Rovanperä’s been anonymous so far
It’s weird how there can be such a difference over the course of just a few months.
Last year, it felt like we couldn’t go to a single rally without Rovanperä stealing the limelight. When we thought someone was going to topple him, he squeezed the throttle even harder, taking the competition to a new gear.
It was almost laughable. Here was this young, relatively inexperienced driver (at WRC level) teaching everyone how to do it.
And yet, so far in 2023 we haven’t really seen any of that from the reigning world champion.
He’s been anonymous to be honest. He’s not exactly made any major mistakes, but he’s also not taken the championship by the horns, proving that he is the undisputed fastest driver on any stage the championship has to offer.
As my colleague Luke Barry explained, it does beg the question as to whether Rovanperä’s motivation might be a factor. It’s evident that he’s not putting himself under huge amounts of pressure. He has, after all, already proven that he can win the championship, and he’s not made much of a secret of the fact that at some stage in his career he would love to go drifting full-time.
But just because he’s anonymous and not stealing the spotlight right now, it doesn’t really mean he’s any less of a threat. In some ways, I actually think that makes him more dangerous.
Considering the fact he’s yet to win a rally this year, Rovanperä’s not exactly struggling in the championship right now.
OK, he’s not leading the standings, but we shouldn’t get carried away by that fact. After all, he is only a single point behind joint leaders Ogier and Evans.
Of course, Rovanperä will need to start winning again soon if he really is going to win a second straight title. But there’s a reason why he’s so relaxed.
He knows he’s very much in the fight, and there’s still so much to play for. So right now, there’s no real need for concern.
Just as I wrote about Evans the other day, write Rovanperä off at your peril. It’s drivers of their quality lurking in the shadows that you need to fear the most.
They won’t sit back for long, and when they strike, it will make one hell of an impact. And I’ll be sitting here ready and waiting with the popcorn when it does.