It’s a tempting conclusion to reach, and the bare statistics more than back it up. Kalle Rovanperä has only ever started two rounds of the World Rally Championship in the top class with a chance of ending it as world champion, and he’s crashed on both of them.
Clearly then, Rovanperä has been spooked, hasn’t he? Perhaps he’s lost his focus, with a new onus on just finishing rallies rather than winning them. Or maybe he’s plain and simply been daunted by the prize he has worked for his entire life staring at him in the face, waiting to be grabbed.
Either way, the title pressure has got to Rovanperä, and it’s led to his form declining. Rapidly. Thank you, next?
Well, no, not exactly. This one’s not quite the cut-and-shut case it would be easy to believe that it is.
While it’s true that Rovanperä’s form has declined since the crown has been within tangible reach, it’s not necessarily true that he’s been making more mistakes.
Rather, the mistakes he has made in both Belgium and Greece have come with bigger consequences, and therefore have helped build the idea that Rovanperä has simply dropped the ball when it mattered most.
But let’s journey back and remember some of the earlier rounds of 2022. Because as brilliant as Rovanperä’s early-season form was, his driving hasn’t been immaculate all year.
Monte Carlo was a struggle to begin with, but the turnaround was superb. Sweden was a perfectly judged drive, Croatia a stunning display of just what Rovanperä can do, while Portugal (Rovanperä’s first gravel rally as first car on the road on Friday) was a demoralizer for the chasing pack as Toyota’s superstar romped to a third victory on the spin.
But since Rally Italy, Rovanperä’s points cushion and the auru that now surrounds him have, for a few months, perhaps masked some of the errors that have been creeping into his driving. If, say, a driver bereft of form like Craig Breen had made them, we’d maybe have been making a bigger deal out of them.
Before Ypres and Acropolis, fifth in Sardinia was Rovanperä’s worst result of the season and he was lucky to get away with a hairy moment on SS4 – running wide and ripping the spoiler off the rear of his GR Yaris Rally1.
A lucky escape. And although he lost performance without downforce, it mattered little as Rovanperä was only sixth when it happened and couldn’t be expected to be higher given his tricky road position.
Safari Rally Kenya rolls around, and Rovanperä very nearly rolled over. Of course, that’s now swiftly forgotten as the event has gone down in history as the scene of Toyota’s epic 1-2-3-4 finish.
But lady luck was riding with Rovanperä on that opening Kenyan stage for sure – run a little wider and that Yaris could’ve tipped all the way over instead of landing back on its wheels. Had that happened, Toyota’s boy wonder wouldn’t have led home that historic finish.
Estonia was next, and Rovanperä slipped up again early doors – this time on stage two. When a WRC driver fesses up to a moment, rather than brushing it off as nothing, you know it must have been quite something.
Rovanperä ran wide and smacked a rock on the side of his Yaris. But no damage was done. He continued, and went onto win the rally.
Had the Toyota drifted just a few inches wider, that collision with the Estonian countryside could have ended his rally.
To an extent, Rovanperä has been getting away with it all season. When the momentum is with you, you’ve got to ride it, and to his credit Rovanperä has absolutely done that.
But now the momentum isn’t with him. It’s with Ott Tänak instead, and Rovanperä’s mistakes have suddenly started to feel far more important just as the repercussions have increased.
But let’s again consider the other side of the argument. Because as much as Rovanperä was getting away with errors earlier in the year and now isn’t, his mistake in Ypres in particular was far more major than any of the others this year.
Rovanperä simply misjudged it. He flat out denied that the crash was the result of the stress caused at the start of the stage where co-driver Jonne Halttunen was particularly animated with the marshals as they tried to work out their start time.
“10kms in [to the stage] things like that shouldn’t affect [you] anymore,” Rovanperä said. But at no other point this season had we seen Rovanperä mess up his pacenotes and turn in at the wrong time for what wasn’t an overly complex series of corners.
With the wind firmly knocked out of his sails, Rovanperä headed to Greece last week in a far different position than he’d grown accusstomed to in 2022. For the first time since Friday on the Monte, Rovanperä had something to prove again.
Unfortunately all he’s done is further mounted the pressure on himself with that error, running wide and rearranging the rear of his Toyota and allowing Tänak to have a prolonged sniff at a title everyone’s linked to Rovanperä since April.
So what does the man himself think? Predictably, he’s not too concerned.
“I don’t think it’s really depending on that,” he told DirtFish when asked if his focus has been slightly missing since the championship has become possible to clinch.
“For sure Belgium was a different thing, we were fighting for the lead when we crashed and here we have been nowhere all weekend with the car, so yeah it was just a mistake today and not much more.”
Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala was more open to the possibility that something had changed with Rovanperä – but only marginally.
“He has had an incredibly nice flow for a long, long time and it comes sometimes to every… we know in sport every now and then the moment comes for the bad sector, and unfortunately these bad rallies are coming together, after each other,” he said.
“I mean I’m not surprised that these things happen but unfortunately they are next to each other.”
It’s worth throwing in here too that Latvala said after Rovanperä’s crash in Ypres, that no champion can have a perfect season where they make no fundamental errors.
Analysis by DirtFish revealed that Latvala’s claim wasn’t quite statistically accurate, but it does certainly hold water in that drivers are humans, not machines. Absolute peak performance 100% of the time is just not a possibility.
But back to that focus: has the shift from just winning rallies to only needing solid points negatively affected Rovanperä? He says no, but Latvala says “it’s a possibility”.
“It’s a new situation, it’s a new experience for him,” Latvala reasoned.
“He has never been in that position before like Loeb or Ogier, it’s a new situation for him also which you have to learn.
He has never been in that position before like Loeb or Ogier, it's a new situation for him.Jari-Matti Latvala
“And before that he has always driven flat out and tried to just win and win, but he is in the position where he needs to defend his lead and I think it’s a new experience, difficult to say.
“Is it coming that the focus hasn’t been the same? I can’t say exactly but of course this situation has also been giving him some new experiences and I’m completely sure that when we go to New Zealand he will be really strong there.”
It’s a strong likelihood. New rallies have been hunting grounds for Rovanperä over the years, where his comparative lack of experience to his rivals at the front of the field was annulled. Fast, flowing rallies suit him too.
But above all else, New Zealand is a chance for Rovanperä to banish any theories that he can’t hack the pressure.
He heads to the other side of the world with his strongest chance yet of become the youngest ever World Rally champion. Do that, and the world quickly forgets the blips and begins to toast what has been an utterly incredible season once again.