Kalle Rovanperä smiled. Then laughed. He may or may not be a Tolkein Head, but the reference wasn’t lost on him. Before the start of last week’s Rally Estonia, he’d lost the one ring. But the one he’d replaced it with seemed even more powerful than the last.
The more eagle-eyed among you would have noticed the defending world champion’s usual black ring had been replaced by a gold version.
“I lost the black one,” he said on the eve of the start in Tartu. “I need to find it. That was my good charm ring.”
Does he? Does he need to find it? Really?
Fastest on 71% of the stages and unbeaten across a perfect weekend, he and Jonne Halttunen cantered home to a near-minute Estonian win for the third year in succession.
The south side of the Gulf of Finland was home to Rovanperä for a couple of years, but he has rarely looked more at home than he did on the ultra-quick Baltic gravel roads around Tartu last week.
The 22-year-old was as majestic as he was mature; fast as he was fearless.
“I liked living here,” he told DirtFish. “I was in Tallinn, really nice place, nice city. And I like this rally. These stages are my favorites in the season. I have said this a long time: Finland is nice, but this one it better.”
And he drove it like a local.
First on the road through Friday, he accepted there would be jeopardy as he swept the loose gravel aside between the showers. He kept his head and did what he could. If there was frustration, he didn’t show it. He just drove.
“There is a huge amount of loose around,” he smiled. “And I had makaronilaatikko for lunch.”
Fuelled by a kind of Finnish version of macaroni cheese, he slotted in a couple of quickest times and installed himself at the top of the table first thing after lunch. He had no intention of moving.
While others fretted and feared about the size of the jumps, the Toyota driver took it all in his stride and sent it for the fans.
“I heard my neck crack on one landing…” he offered, “but it’s good for the fans to see the cars on the jump.”
And then to Saturday, and a record-breaking run of 13 straight stage wins. Across a weekend in and around Otepää he made the best of the rest look average. And he did so without breaking sweat.
I’ve watched all nine of Kalle’s wins that have come before this one and they’ve all been impressive – not least the North Island New Zealand success that delivered his maiden title last year. But this was in another league.
Toyota had worked its magic under the hood, giving the GR Yaris Rally1 the necessary horses to gallop past Hyundai’s apparently strongest engine in the field. And Kalle put them to very good use.
Watching the Yaris on Saturday afternoon’s Kanepi test, it’s hard to imagine a stronger or more harmonious combination of man and machine. Emerging from a junction beneath the trees, the Toyota deployed the full force of its battery-boosted 540bhp. And left the helicopter standing.
Sometimes I grab the seat a little bit if I think we are having a moment. This time only onceJonne Halttunen
The power and torque was ultimately impressive, but what was even more astounding was the way the car found grip where others struggled. The levels of inefficient wheelspin were obvious from the amount of dust being kicked up. Rovanperä’s car left the slightest of trails as it sliced from corner after corner, sliding to within an inch of the trees. Onboard, Rovanperä was steely eyed, but you just knew the smile inside was a mile wide.
Washing off that speed into a tight junction was similarly telling – the eruption of dust from beneath the Yaris as Kalle braked harder, later and deeper than anybody was incredible.
Not every corner was perfect though.
Jonne takes up the story.
“Sometimes I grab the seat a little bit if I think we are having a moment,” he sad. “This time only once.”
Rovanperä steps in to add detail.
“It was one stage on Friday,” he said. “There was one fast corner where we went a bit faster than we should do. I see everything he’s doing. I am concentrating on the road, but I always see from the corner of my eye when he is grabbing the seat and I always pick on him!”
Laughing now, he continued: “If we finish the stage then there was no moment. And no need for him to grab the seat!”
Across Saturday and Sunday, they finished all the stages in P1. There were no moments. Just precision and perfection. Second time through Elva and the leader was really enjoying himself.
“I don’t need to push so hard now,” he said. “The car is working and it’s feeling quite easy at the moment.”
A couple of stages later and he offered: “I wanted a fastest time, so I made a fastest time.”
Writing that and reading it back, the black and white words on the screen might look arrogant. They weren’t.
There’s nothing remotely conceited about Rovanperä. He’s just confident in his own abilities.
Honestly speaking, last week’s Rally Estonia was a fairly dull affair in terms of a sporting contest, but that didn’t detract in any way, shape or form from the pleasure of being there.
What round eight missed in the way of nip and tuck, it more than made up for in the shape of outright brilliance and historical context. In years to come, folk will remember this event and talk of a masterclass from Kalle and Jonne.
They were that good.
And they matched that in-car class with plenty of style out of it. Thousands packed the center of Tartu and waited for them at the ceremonial finish. There was a selfie for anybody who wanted one. Rovanperä stood, smiled and repeated time after time after time.
Last Sunday he knew what he’d achieved. He’d found that place where the car was the glove on his hand. Harmony.
Was it the ring?
“Maybe,” he said, “maybe it’s the lord of the ring!”
Far from the fires of Mount Doom, this one was forged in the fields and the forests of south Estonia.
And now? Finland awaits.