They’re separated by the Gulf of Bothnia. And by one year and one week. They both have world rally-winning fathers. And a weight of expectation burdening their shoulders. And they are, without doubt, the future of the World Rally Championship.
So, one question: who’s faster? Kalle or Oliver? Rovanperä or Solberg?
Like you, here at DirtFish, we’ve been pondering this one for a while and with Solberg’s World Rally Car debut now upon us, it seemed like the perfect time to try to answer that question.
The early years
Eight was something of a pivotal age for both. It’s how old Rovanperä was when he made that video in that Toyota on that frozen lake. Across the water in Sweden, Solberg was starting – and winning – his first ever crosskart event at the same age. It’s worth pointing a couple of things early in this story. The Finn is the older of the two, by a year and a week. And, while Oliver’s father Petter is the most Norwegian of Norwegian triple world champions, Oliver carries the Swedish flag of his mother Pernilla – who happens to hail from Swedish rallying royalty, the Walfridsson family.
Rovanperä took a Toyota from the winter water to the Finnish rallysprint scene and started competing at 11. Two years later and he was Latvia-bound behind the wheel of a Citroën C2 R2 Max. He stayed there using a French front-wheel-drive car until 2015, by which time he’d won the R2 class.
With Latvia the go-to place for 14-year-old rally drivers (whose co-drivers are willing to pedal the road sections), it came as no surprise that Solberg followed him in that direction. And with front-wheel-drive French power courtesy of a Peugeot 208 R2.
Of the two, Kalle made the step to four-wheel-drive rally cars quicker, jumping into a Škoda Fabia S2000 aged 16. Oliver’s transition was a little later. On the stages.
One of Solberg’s biggest strengths early on has been his time taming a 600bhp rallycross Supercar. Told by his father he would be given the keys – if he straightened everything out with the Swedish governing body to allow him to compete earlier than normally permitted – Junior had the job sorted immediately.
Taking the DS 3 Supercar Petter used to win two World Rallycross Championship titles, Solberg Jr won two rounds in the RallyX Nordic series aged 15. A year later, he took the title.
Harnessing and guiding that much power at such a tender age was just what Oliver needed. When it came to the 208 R2, everything was happening at such a slower speed. In jumping so far ahead, he’d bought himself reaction time behind the wheel.
It was a similar story for Kalle, with the Finnish ASN allowing him a competition licence a year early at 16. This meant he was legally allowed to win the first Finnish Rally Championship round he ever competed on – which he did with success on the SM Vaakuna Rally in 2017. That wasn’t the highlight for him though, that came with a test aboard a Toyota Yaris WRC…
There was further clemency from the Finnish government a year later, when Rovanperä was allowed to take his driving test a year early. With a full licence aged 17, he was up and away. A WRC debut came at Rally GB later in 2017 and he signed a three-year Škoda deal and served two of them before he departed Mlada Boleslav as WRC2 Pro champion at the end of 2019.
Solberg found his four-wheel-drive feet in a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 at the start of 2019. He had to wait until he was 18 for his full licence, but that didn’t stop him competing in national series. Like Kalle, he won on his debut. Three years after the Finn’s Rally Alūksne success, it was the same story on the same rally – for Kalle read Oliver.
But short of the full driving licence, Solberg was unable to channel himself straight into the WRC like Rovanperä did.
So he went to America. He called Subaru Motorsport USA and made a deal to drive a 400bhp open class WRX STI. What happened? He was second on his Rally of the 100 Acre Wood debut, then he won DirtFish Olympus Rally. He started six American Rally Association rounds and won three of them.
Back across the pond, he then won Rally Liepāja to become the youngest ever winner of a European Rally Championship round (or any FIA-affiliated series).
Then, days after his 18th birthday in 2019, he made his WRC debut at Rally GB.
Finally, both had made it to where they wanted to be.
The pair’s paths might have crossed briefly in Latvia in 2017, but comparison was impossible – Rovanperä was chasing outright wins in a Fabia, while Solberg was hunting for class success in the 208.
But this week is not the first time the pair have locked horns in equal machinery. Don’t forget the Bettega Memorial Rallysprint in Bologna at the end of that year. Run in memory of Attilio Bettega, the event pitches drivers head-to-head in a two-lane rallysprint-style event.
Rovanperä attended for the first time in 2016 and finished second, driving a World Rally Car (a Ford Fiesta RS WRC) for the first time. Twelve months on and Solberg made his debut in a World Rally Car (of the same flavour) at the same event.
There for the second time, Kalle progressed to the final for the second year in succession. And who should he meet in the final? That’s right: Master O. Solberg. Just like Kalle, Oliver finished his first Bettega in second place.
Rovanperä’s pace since signing to drive for Toyota Gazoo Racing was one of the talking points of the 2020 WRC season.
His powerstage win on round two was sensational, but it was Estonia in September where the expectations really rose. Having been brought up on fast roads and driving a car with a similar backstory, the Tartu stages were thought highly likely to deliver the goods for the then 19-year-old. He led after the second stage, but a puncture on the third put paid to his hopes of a maiden win.
There’s a similar level of expectation this week – and for the same reason of fast car on fast roads.
Can Rovanperä win in the Arctic? Absolutely he can.
Can Solberg win in the Arctic? Potentially, he could because he’s in a Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC. But it’s very, very unlikely.
After a tricky start to last year with mistakes in Monte Carlo, a puncture in Sweden and suspension damage in México, it looked like Solberg – by now another Škoda recruit – could be facing a difficult full rookie season in WRC.
But that all turned around with a sensational Rally Estonia, where he was fastest Rally2 and ninth overall. Had he not out-braked himself in Sardinia, it would have been a similar story: quickest Rally2 and eighth overall. There was another WRC top-10 in Monza, where he ran Andreas Mikkelsen a close second in Rally2.
As soon as Solberg’s Hyundai Motorsport deal was done at the start of this season, it was clear he was bound for the big class. The surprise is that it’s come so soon.
Solberg’s ready for it.
Old heads, young shoulders
Talking to Harri Rovanperä at the start of last season, the 2001 Rally Sweden winner smiled at the prospect of his son being an average 19-year-old.
“When you talk to him now, it’s like talking to somebody in their mid or late 20s already,” said Rovanperä Sr.
“He has a lot of experience, he knows what he wants from the car and he is able to talk to the team and tell them. In some ways, he has kind of missed some of the teenage years – but this is where he wants to be.”
It’s where he was born to be.
And, like the title of his film Born2Drive, so is Solberg.
Talk to Petter and the response is almost verbatim: Oliver knows how to talk.
It’s no surprise. Spring rates and roll bar settings are meat and drink at the Solberg supper table. Oliver’s spent his life listening to his momma and papa talking in such terms – it’s little wonder that he’s so far ahead of his contemporaries when it comes to explaining why he wants a certain ramp in a certain differential for a certain corner.
The good news for the World Rally Championship is that the two drivers ready to rule our world for a while are quite different in terms of personalities.
Both are exceptionally polite and just as accessible as they’ve always been. Both speak superb English and are articulate and comfortable company.
Kalle is the quieter of the two. He’s happy to slide into the background at press functions and is both compliant and controlled in an interview. His Finnish tone can be short of emotion on occasion, but I really like that. He has a real touch of the Raikkonen about him in a good way. When Kimi’s engaged and involved, he’s interesting and informed. Unlike Kimi, Kalle is invariably engaged and involved.
Out and about, the Iceman similarity continues: Rovanperä’s happy to pull down the cap and keep himself to himself. He’d never swerve a fan, but he’s not somebody who searches the spotlight.
And neither does Solberg. But, as you’d expect as the son of a man who was known as ‘Hollywood’, he’s more comfortable in front of the camera. Oliver’s cap is always elevated enough for the world to see the spark in his eye. He has boundless energy and enthusiasm and an urge to do everything at 100mph.
Look at his response to lockdown – his search for meaningful competition sent him down the road of establishing the Solberg World Cup, the most successful online rally battle ever.
Both share astonishing natural talent, outstanding confidence and huge levels of maturity in their approach to rallies. It’s rare for either to try to snatch a result, instead they build, they craft and they create opportunity for success in a way you’d expect from a driver a decade up on them.
And that’s the thing that’s so easy to forget, they’ve been going at it for 10 years and going at it at some speed too.
Every now and then there are flashes of brilliance that can come in the most unusual of circumstances.
Still, for me, one of Rovanperä’s finest hours was the calmness he showed when he landed an ill-handling Škoda in a snowbank on the 2019 Rally Sweden.
There were no histrionics. The spectators came and started pushing and pulling. Rovanperä’s co-driver Jonne Halttunen directed operations while Kalle sat entirely placid, hands together in his lap. Sensing the car was nearly back on track, he gave his belts a tug, pulled first gear and was immediately back on it.
The class, composure and control of a champion.
Solberg’s snapshot has to come at the 2019 Festival of Speed, when he tore up the Goodwood hillclimb in a run that will remain forever etched in the memories of those fortunate enough to be there to see it. Aboard the DS 3 Supercar, he took lines and liberties nobody had ever dared dream of before.
The speed, verve and sheer imagination of a champion.
The immediate future
Both will star through the remainder of the season. Rovanperä will win rallies, quite possible starting with Arctic Rally Finland this week. Can he put together a title run? Potentially. But in some ways it would be nice to think he would put the title out of his mind – that’s possibly the only thing which could contain his enthusiasm for speed. And that would be a shame. The titles will follow, for now, let’s just see the real, raw pace of youth.
For Oliver, he will star in WRC2 once his campaign gets underway and success against the likes of Mikkelsen would make that crown a very, very worthy one. But the i20 R5 and the i20 N Rally2 is just a stepping stone. The world is ready and waiting for the moment Solberg’s shift to a World Rally Car is a permanent one.
What’s possible from behind the wheel of an i20 Coupe WRC this year very much depends how long he sits there. The more events he starts at the highest level, the more chance he has of success – especially somewhere like Estonia, where he’s been the fastest Rally2 driver for the last two years.
So, in answer to the question at the very top of this tale… currently Kalle, by dint of the fact that he’s a year ahead. But ultimately, it’s too early to tell. The best bet? Another classic McRae-Mäkinen-style head-to-head which will roll on down the years.
I can hardly wait.