Jonne Halttunen column: How we won Rally Poland

The reigning world champion provides an insight into one of his and Kalle Rovanperä's most incredible wins


In this exclusive column, reigning world champion Jonne Halttunen takes us inside his and Kalle Rovanperä’s extraordinary effort to win Rally Poland – an event they weren’t even supposed to start.

Hello everyone! I am just about recovered from a crazy weekend in Poland where Kalle and I were able to win, but as I’m sure you know it was not a normal win, let’s say.

The weekend before the rally we were celebrating Midsummer in Finland. I was actually in London from Thursday to Monday evening, so I landed on Monday evening at 10pm in Helsinki and 12 hours after I left to Estonia by plane to get a tattoo done, and it was supposed to be a two-day session so I only had basically stuff for one night. So I was not in the best place to get a call like we did!

I had heard that something had happened to Séb and Vincent on recce, so I was calculating that the options were if they were OK they could maybe recce the stages later on, or maybe they will take [Sami] Pajari because I didn’t even know if it was going to be possible for us to recce. But at that point I called my mom, because she lives in the same city as me, and asked if she could go to my place and pack all of my stuff in case I have to go.

We made a video call and I told her what she needed to pick up, then when the final call came Kalle drove by my place in Jyväskylä and picked up all my stuff which was already packed, and then the plane stopped in Tallinn to pick me up – even the engines didn’t stop when I boarded the flight!

The schedule was quite tight from everywhere, so I didn’t have a lot of time to think. The tattoo I’m getting is quite a big one, and let’s say I’m getting the ink in places that are quite sensitive so the pain is quite enormous, so you cannot think about anything clearly there! I was just trying to stay alive in the tattoo chair! But I was aware we would have a big job on our hands.

So when we landed on Tuesday evening, there was so, so much to do. I got the roadbooks at the hotel and just tried to go step by step. If you are a good co-driver, when you come to the rally you basically already know everything and you have all the scenarios already in your mind. Let’s say if you have a puncture in some stage, you already know if you’re going to change it or not for example. You just know everything, but I didn’t have a chance to make a big picture in my head so I just asked my mates in the team Scott [Martin] and Aaron [Johnston] to help me if I needed some help, and just go step by step – not even try and make the whole big picture in my head because there was just not enough time to do it.

It was a totally new situation for me – I like to prepare myself well as it gives me good self-confidence, but when you are in the totally opposite situation it was quite difficult to be honest. For example, after shakedown I had no clue how to get in to the service park because I didn’t have time beforehand to check. You normally would go in a recce car or walking or something, but in this case I wasn’t able to. In the end it went fine, but it’s not the nicest feeling.


Rovanperä and Halttunen were granted special dispensation by event organizers to recce stages later

The recce was quite compromised because basically we did the whole recce in one day. After shakedown on Thursday we did one stage, plus the small one at Mikołajki, but the rest we did on Wednesday so it’s a big job. When you recce for a full day, it’s quite hard to stay 100% concentrated all the time, plus we were in a big rush – we didn’t have any time for a small break to let our brains breathe so it was just going from stage to stage to stage which is not ideal in work which is really sensitive to mistakes.

Like Kalle said many times in the rally, the pacenotes were not perfect. For sure we still watched the videos and stuff like that but I guess for him why they were not perfect was he was also really tired on recce. And also for the driver, if you know the stages already in advance from watching the videos at home you can make better pacenotes because you know what to predict. You know after this fast left-hander you have a junction-right or whatever. When they do the proper preparation they already know a bit but we had no clue so it was really tough for Kalle – especially as we had never done this rally before either. For me, even after the first stage on Thursday evening I was still rewriting the pacenotes from recce until at least midnight. There are only so many hours in the day so for sure I was lacking the hours!

Thursday was quite the disaster for me because even when we started SS1 I still had so much stuff to work with. We were so far behind where we’d usually be and Thursdays are really busy anyway with PR and normal info coming from the team and the weather crews and so on, plus actually doing the first stage, so basically I had like six fires everywhere and I tried to shut them down one by one. My stress level was quite high for SS1, but after that I knew that come Friday morning I should be OK – the only problem is we didn’t sleep so much so we were quite tired. But once we reached Sunday, it was more like a normal rally – just we had to watch maybe double the videos that we normally do just to get ourselves straight for the stages.

Nowadays everyone knows the stages by heart so we had no choice but to catch up – the pace all the drivers are on now is amazing because they basically know every corner, how much you can cut and what is the surface of the road. But maybe it would have been better for us if this happened 10 or 15 years ago, because for sure the whole rally sport has changed a lot in this way. That would have made our life a bit easier!


The world champions were compromised without time to study the stages before arriving

On the rally, things obviously went well but the start wasn’t easy. There can never be any doubt about Kalle’s skill but to be honest I was surprised by how much he was struggling with the pacenotes because it was something new for him to tell me he is a bit scared. If we were doing a normal gravel rally it’s OK to drive just from pacenotes, you have time to react, but in Poland with such fast stages at 200km/h in between the trees, in 200m you can have so many pacenotes so he obviously wasn’t able to remember everything. The Friday morning loop was therefore uncomfortbale and difficult but on the second pass where he could use memory plus the pacenotes it was OK.

We took the lead on Saturday morning but still the pacenotes were not good. Normally in rallies if we have a totally new stage Kalle is actually quite often one of the fastest guys, if not the fastest, but this was not the case in this rally. Still on Saturday we were fighting a bit and he still I guess said he was a bit afraid to push because he didn’t know the stage super-well. But for sure it was better than Friday, each day was better compared to the one before.

Tiredness was a problem though because the stages were quite far away, so I drove the road sections coming back to service. Kalle was super tired, he needed the time to rest so we just asked Takamoto [Katsuta] if he could stop at the end of the stage so we could follow him back. So I was driving and Kalle slept a bit – but this is what we actually do quite often when Kalle needs a rest. Even if he is not sleeping it’s just a good way that he can refresh the brain and think about something else.


Jonne is a dab hand at driving too, albeit on the road sections

On Sunday we were not only thinking about the win, we were thinking about the points for the team because how we count points nowadays in the series, that’s a different story but it’s maybe not the best thing, particularly for guys like us who aren’t doing a full championship. But we tried to also get good points from Sunday. Maybe the tire choice was not optimal because they were quite dead for the powerstage so it was difficult to fight for the win there, but we wanted to help the team – not only to win it but just to get as many points as possible. The team did a big job to get us there and for sure the year hasn’t been the best for us – we have made mistakes, we have retired two times from the lead, so for sure we wanted to repay the team and show why we have been hired.

It’s difficult to compare this achievement to events where you win the title, but if you think about normal rally wins this is going easily into my top three because we were not prepared to win the rally. But actually, to be honest, when I came to the plane with Kalle on Tuesday I said to him ‘this would be a nice story if we can win this one so let’s go for it’ and he agreed we had to try to win it, but it was a bit of a joke. In the end, it happened!

I sent a message to Séb before the event and said: ‘So sorry to hear about your accident, but we try to replace you as best as possible.’ And he actually replied: ‘Thanks and there’s no better replacement than you guys’. Actually we could pull it off, so that was a nice thing.

I don’t recommend winning a rally in this way though! I have been sleeping most of Monday and Tuesday as I am still recovering from Poland. Our Latvia preparation will start soon and it will be nice to do it properly. For me it felt like I got three months older in a few days because the stress level was high all the time, so I want to do my normal job.

Before I go, a lot of people have been asking me about my tattoo and when will I get it finished? Now it’s quite busy with Rally Latvia and we will do Rally Finland, so the Tuesday after Finland I’m going back to Estonia for two days to see the tattoo artist. It’s a big project, so there’s still seven or eight days left until it is finished. It will look like a 3D animation – the guy who is doing it is super-talented, he is one of the best in the world. I cannot wait to show you all.