Kalle Rovanperä and Jonne Halttunen have been crowned 2022 World Rally champions with victory on Rally New Zealand.
Defeating outgoing champion Sébastien Ogier by 34.6 seconds and with closest title rival Ott Tänak down in third, Rovanperä only needed fourth on the powerstage to secure the crown but he won it anyway.
He becomes the youngest ever champion in WRC history at just 22 years and one day old, sealing it in perfect style with his sixth victory from 11 rallies this season.
A cool customer, Rovanperä showed real emotion as he crossed the line – he and co-driver Halttunen grinning from ear to ear as they leapt onto the roof of their Toyota and started dancing, letting the moment sink in.
An emotional embrace with father Harri was up first before addressing the stage-end interviewer.
“It’s quite a big relief after such a good season and finally we are here,” he said.
“Biggest thanks goes to the team of course, they made this rocket this year – reliable and fast car. Even after the difficult rallies they were all the time believing in us, giving us the support.”
Before Rovanperä had crossed the line, Tänak paid tribute to his rival: “This week Kalle and Toyota have been very, very strong, and they have beaten everybody fair and square,” he said.
“Hopefully everything goes well for Kalle and well done to Harri as well, he has done an amazing job as a father to raise such an amazing kid.”
Victory in New Zealand was never a formality for Rovanperä, who was faced with the dubious task of sweeping the loose gravel clear from the stages on day one.
Instead, it was Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans that led overnight – profiting from five second penalties for Rovanperä, Tänak and Thierry Neuville whose cars’ hybrid units over boosted on Thursday night’s superspecial.
But Evans’ victory bid would unravel on Saturday morning when he suffered a big slide on a quick right-hand corner and thwacked the inside bank, tipping his GR Yaris Rally1 into a roll.
The car landed on its wheels and so Evans continued but had dropped to fourth, having damaged his radiator and losing his tailgate. He made it back to service, but with the rollcage damaged he would play no further part in the weekend.
Rovanperä meanwhile was busy doing what he did best: excelling in the rain. After two difficult WRC events with crashes in Belgium and Greece, Rovanperä was made it look easy in New Zealand and romped clear into a lead he wouldn’t let go of.
Ogier’s ascent to second was aided by a transmission problem for Tänak on Saturday afternoon (and yet another hybrid boosting penalty, this time 10s and for all three Hyundais), but it was still an impressive drive for the eight-time champion given he hadn’t competed since June. He recorded his first podium since the Monte Carlo Rally season opener.
Tänak led home a Hyundai 3-4-5 with team-mates Thierry Neuville and Oliver Solberg the only other two works Rally1 cars to make it through Rally New Zealand unscathed.
But that’s not to say there weren’t moments – Neuville suffered two spins on Friday and a heart-stopping slide wide on the penultimate stage of the rally, while Solberg’s engine dropped to three cylinders on Saturday afternoon.
It was yet again another difficult weekend for M-Sport though, despite an absolutely terrific start.
Breen was second to Tänak on Thursday’s asphalt park stage but took over the lead of the rally in an early M-Sport 1-2 after the famous Whaanga Coast test, but it was team-mate Gus Greensmith who was fastest on SS2 to win the first gravel stage of his WRC career.
But the Pumas were soon overhauled by the hungry Tänak and Evans before Breen put himself out the battle when he struggled to slow down for a tight right-hander after a cattle guard and slid down a bank – the same corner that caught out Colin McRae two decades earlier in 2002.
Breen did eventually get back on the road, but not before losing the thick end of 17 minutes, but was forced to retire on the road section with a worn out clutch.
Greensmith was fifth after the first day and had dropped to sixth, just one second behind Neuville, on Friday afternoon before he crashed out spectacularly on the final test before midday service.
Nibbling the inside of the corner fractionally too early, Greensmith was off-line and he began to understeer wide and towards the edge of the road. There he found a ditch, and the Puma was soon pitched into a series of rolls that eventually canceled the running of the stage.
While Greensmith wouldn’t restart, Breen did return and set several competitive stage times to ensure M-Sport’s incredible streak of consecutive points finishes in the manufacturers’ championship lives on.
There was a late setback though as a tire de-beaded on the rear of Breen’s Puma upon landing over one of the Jack’s Ridge powerstage’s several jumps.
One points scoring run that did come to an end in New Zealand though was Takamoto Katsuta’s. The Toyota Next Generation driver had finished inside the top 10 on all 10 rounds so far this season, and despite a slow start had climbed up to fifth by Saturday afternoon.
But he got it wrong on a quick right-hander into a slower left and ran out of road – his GR Yaris Rally1 slowly slipping off the edge of the road, softly rolling over once before coming to rest some way down the bank. Katsuta retired and didn’t re-emerge on the final day.
Benefitting from these mistakes of the Rally1 drivers was local driver and one-time WRC winner Hayden Paddon, who cruised to an easy WRC2 victory in his Hyundai i20 N Rally2.
Sixth overall was a more than handy bonus and marked his first WRC points since second on Rally Australia 2018 in an i20 Coupe WRC.
Paddon managed to defeat one of the Rally1 drivers in M-Sport privateer Lorenzo Bertelli, who was contesting his first event in the new hybrid machines following an aborted attempt to contest Rally Sweden.
Bertelli however did record a personal best WRC finish in seventh, over two minutes clear of Kajetan Kajetanowicz who scored useful points – second in class – for his quest to beat Andreas Mikkelsen to the WRC2 title.
The WRC2 podium was rounded out by two-time Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen who incredibly scored points on WRC debut.
Driving a Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo, van Gisbergen was devastatingly fast and might have given Kajetanowicz a serious challenge for second but for a puncture on Saturday.
“I’m living my dream and to get a podium, I’m stoked,” he said. “I’m having a ball.”
Harry Bates, winner of his last 16 starts over in his native Australia behind the wheel of a Toyota, rounded out the top 10, also on his WRC debut and his first outing in a Škoda.