“I guess this is the year when my record will be beaten,” said Jari-Matti Latvala after the opening round of the 2021 World Rally Championship season.
“I start to see Kalle has the potential so high that he is going to take his first victory quite soon.”
Kalle is of course Kalle Rovanperä – son of 2001 Rally Sweden winner Harri who took the world of rallying by storm to vault into top-line machinery at the tender age of 19.
Latvala, who is now Rovanperä’s team principal at Toyota Gazoo Racing, used to be the youngest ever rally winner in the world championship.
But not any more.
It somehow feels like we’ve waited forever, but Rovanperä is now officially a world rally winner at the 14th time of asking while driving in the top class after a superbly controlled performance on Rally Estonia last weekend.
Rovanperä has therefore etched his name into the history books, and it would take a very special talent to dislodge him from his place as the youngest ever WRC winner.
Several huge talents have won rallies at a young age too, so Rovanperä is in rather good company. Here is how the rest of the list formulates.
10. Thierry Neuville
Age: 26 years, 68 days
Event: Rally Germany 2014
Thierry Neuville had shown strong rally winning promise in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC throughout 2013 but that first victory eluded him en route to second in the world championship. Instead, it wasn’t until his ninth rally in a Hyundai i20 WRC that he got off the mark, although he very nearly didn’t start at all.
On the pre-event shakedown stage, Neuville carried too much speed into a tightening left-hander and rolled his Hyundai down a bank in the vineyards. Cue a big overnight job for the Hyundai mechanics, but after a herculean effort Neuville’s car was ready for the first stage on Friday morning.
Neuville might have almost thrown away his rally before it had even begun, but his rivals were in a similar mood. Future WRC title foe Sébastien Ogier was setting the pace in his Volkswagen – as he did so often in 2014 – before he left the road on Friday’s final stage. He finished the job properly in the rain on Saturday in a terrifying high-speed crash into the Armco barrier.
Jari-Matti Latvala inherited the lead and steadily began to build his advantage over Kris Meeke until the first stage on Sunday morning when he slipped off into the vineyards. Meeke was the new leader but only for one stage as he slid into a wall and lost the rear-left wheel of his Citroën DS3.
So despite his shakedown accident and going a cautious 12th fastest on SS1, victory was Neuville’s as he led home team-mate Dani Sordo to record his and Hyundai’s first victory of its WRC return in perfect one-two formation.
9. Juha Kankkunen
Age: 26 years, 6 days
Event: Safari Rally 1985
Back in 1985, the Group B era of rallying was in full swing meaning a four-wheel-drive, flame-spitting machine was what you needed to prosper in the WRC. More specifically, a Peugeot 205 T16 Evo 2 was what you wanted as the little French rocket won over half of that season’s 12 rounds.
But not the Safari Rally. The extremely rough and tough nature of the Kenyan stop on the WRC’s global tour offered the less powerful two-wheel-drive cars something of a leveller and for the second year in a row, Toyota took the spoils with its Celica Twincam Turbo.
Juha Kankkunen – who would actually move to Peugeot for 1986 – was the man that stood on the top step to win his first of 23 world rallies to be, at the time, the fourth youngest winner in WRC history.
The 1985 Safari was a torrid affair. The 3,225-mile rally route was arduous enough and indicative of the time, but heavy rain made some of the roads intolerable and survival skills rather than outright performance came to the fore.
Lancia, with its rear-wheel-drive 037, was leading the rally early on with Markku Alén before he first broke a front strut and lost a wheel and then his engine exploded.
For Audi, reigning world champion Stig Blomqvist’s gearbox exploded and Hannu Mikkola’s car caught fire when refueling while for the dominant Peugeot squad, Ari Vatanen retired with a head gasket failure and Bruno Saby crashed.
Kankkunen set a steady pace and kept himself out of trouble to take a well-earned victory ahead of Toyota team-mate Björn Waldegård. The highest-placed four-wheel-drive car was Timo Salonen’s 205 T16 which finished seventh, close to four hours behind the leader.
8. Timo Salonen
Age: 25 years, 345 days
Event: Critérium du Quebec 1977
Just a couple of weeks before his 26th birthday – and eight years before that disappointing Safari Rally with Peugeot – Timo Salonen won his first world rally in a Fiat 131 Abarth, four-and-a-half minutes ahead of team-mate and fellow Finn Simo Lampinen.
The Critérium du Quebec – also known as the Rally of Canada – was the ninth of 11 rounds in 1977 when the WRC was only a competition for manufacturers, and Salonen had been selected alongside Lampinen, Walter Röhrl, Markku Alén and Timo Mäkinen to drive for Fiat.
On just his fifth world championship start and only his first outside of his native Finland, Salonen strung it altogether with ease. The 1985 World Rally Champion was an early fourth after the rally’s first leg, tucked in behind team-mates Röhrl, Alén and the Ford Escort of compatriot Ari Vatanen.
However that soon became second as both of his team-mates Röhrl and Alén (as well as Mäkinen) were forced to retire with engine trouble.
Vatanen had streaked clear, showing the searing pace he had become renowned for, but when his Escort developed an engine problem at the start of the final day the path was clear for Salonen to grab a maiden WRC victory.
He became, at the time, the second-youngest driver ever to win a WRC rally – and a vitally important winner for Fiat in its battle with Ford which it eventually won.
7. Colin McRae
Age: 25 years, 2 days
Event: Rally New Zealand 1993
While Colin McRae still holds the distinction of being the youngest World Rally Champion ever at just 27 years and 109 days old, he is only the seventh youngest winner of a world rally.
That’s due to his breakthrough win in New Zealand back in 1993 at the wheel of a Subaru Legacy RS – also the first of 47 WRC victories for Subaru. It had been a widely expected victory, as McRae had shown on numerous occasions prior to the trip down under that he was a rally winner in-waiting. It had just never all come together until that moment.
McRae – who turned 25 on the first day of the rally – squared off against Ford’s François Delecour and Toyota’s Didier Auriol for the win. An epic battle ensued between all three, with McRae and Auriol trading the lead and Delecour closing in on the pair of them.
The third of four legs of the rally was where McRae made the difference. Utilizing a softer compound of Michelin tire, the Scot dethroned Auriol at the first time of asking and began to pull away as Delecour and Auriol became embroiled in a fight for second, unable to take time away from McRae.
Delecour managed to get the better of Auriol by a slender two seconds, but was 27s behind McRae at the finish who became the first British driver to win a world rally in almost two decades. It was also the Legacy RS’s first and only WRC victory, as on the very next round of the series in Finland, it was replaced by the new Impreza 555.
6. François Duval
Age: 24 years, 359 days
Event: Rally Australia 2005
The less said about François Duval’s 2005 season the better really, as to say it was a disaster is putting it mildly. Joining Citroën from Ford to partner Sébastien Loeb should have been a dream move for Duval, but instead it became a living nightmare.
A string of errors and crashes led to Duval being dropped for both Turkey and the Acropolis in favor of the retired Carlos Sainz, and when Duval returned in Finland he had Sven Smeets’s voice in his ear as former co-driver Stéphane Prévot had had enough and dumped him.
Aside from an accident in Corsica, Duval’s form did improve upon his return and he banked three podiums before breaking his WRC victory duck on the final round of the season in Australia.
Uncharacteristically, it was Loeb who crashed his Xsara WRC down under on the stage after he had wrestled the lead from Petter Solberg’s Subaru, to leave Duval carrying all of Citroën’s hopes on his shoulders.
Duval lay second behind Solberg and ahead of Colin McRae’s Škoda until Solberg hit a kangaroo with his Impreza WRC and was forced to retire. From there, Duval kept his head and when McRae ran OTL with a clutch change in service, he was left to record a near-minute advantage over Harri Rovanperä’s Mitsubishi.
It would be the only rally win of Duval’s career as he was replaced by Dani Sordo for 2006 and wouldn’t find a full-time manufacturer drive elsewhere.
5. Mads Østberg
Age: 24 years, 173 days
Event: Rally Portugal 2012
Like Duval, Mads Østberg is also just a one-time WRC winner but cruelly for the Norwegian, he has never had the opportunity to cross the final finish-line of the rally knowing that he’s won.
That’s because Østberg’s victory on Rally Portugal in 2012 was awarded to him after the event had concluded, with on-the-road winner Mikko Hirvonen being excluded after post-event scrutineers ruled that the clutch on his Citroën DS3 WRC didn’t conform to the regulations.
Hirvonen had beaten Østberg by almost two minutes but after his exclusion, the Ford privateer topped a podium that included Evgeny Novikov and Petter Solberg. It was a true result for the underdogs, with Martin Prokop, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Dennis Kuipers rounding out the top six.
This was no mean feat, as the rally was unbelievably treacherous. Sébastien Loeb demonstrated this when he rolled his DS3 on the event’s third stage in conditions that were, in a word, disgusting. Jari-Matti Latvala then clipped a rock and spun his Ford Fiesta WRC off the road just two stages later, and his team-mate Solberg then made a similar error on the next stage.
It meant Ostberg’s Adapta World Rally Team example was the highest-placed Fiesta WRC, and while he couldn’t quite match Hirvonen he gamely held onto second which became first to win a WRC round at just 24-years-old.
4. Markku Alén
Age: 24 years, 156 days
Event: Rally Portugal 1975
Just 17 days younger than Østberg was and achieving his maiden success on the same rally, albeit 37 years earlier, Markku Alén won his first of 19 world rallies in Portugal back in 1975. It made him the youngest ever winner of a WRC round.
Driving a Fiat 131 Abarth, Alén edged team-mate Hannu Mikkola and the Toyota Corolla Levin of Ove Andersson to win at just the tender age of 24.
It was far from an easy ride for Alén, as proved by the retirements list. Top seeds Achim Warmbold, Walter Röhrl, Björn Waldegård, Alcide Paganelli and António Borges all succumbed to either mechanical problems or crashed out of the event.
For Alén it was a long time coming after six previous podium places, so naturally he was delighted to seal the victory and secure a longer-term future with Fiat.
3. Henri Toivonen
Age: 24 years, 86 days
Event: RAC Rally 1980
Henri Toivonen is best remembered for his exploits in Lancia’s rally cars, but his maiden WRC success came on the 1980 RAC Rally in a Talbot Sunbeam when he eclipsed Alén in becoming the youngest winner in world championship history. It was a record he would hold for almost 28 years.
Hannu Mikkola’s Ford Escort started that year’s season finale in Great Britain as favorite, chasing a hat-trick after victories in both 1978 and ’79. But Mikkola’s rally didn’t go to plan as he was off the road early on, already losing four minutes to the leaders.
Toivonen meanwhile was something of a silent assassin, keeping himself in touch but not troubling the early leader Anders Kulläng in his Opel Ascona 400. That was until the rally headed north and Toivonen started pumping in fastest stage times, rising to third overall.
Before the rally looped back down south to Wales, the crews headed into Grizedale forest and Toivonen would emerge with the rally lead. Kulläng collected two punctures and lost eight minutes while second-placed Björn Waldegård ground to a halt with engine problems aboard his Toyota.
Mikkola, on a comeback drive, rose to second behind the new leader Toivonen but he had no answer for Toivonen’s devastating pace. Victory was Toivonen’s and he’d more than earned it.
2. Jari-Matti Latvala
Age: 22 years, 313 days
Event: Rally Sweden 2008
Henri Toivonen was Jari-Matti Latvala’s boyhood hero, so when Latvala crossed the finish-line on Rämmen 2 to beat his Ford team-mate Mikko Hirvonen to Rally Sweden victory in 2008, there was plenty of emotion.
Latvala is a keen student of the WRC and admitted that eclipsing his idol’s record was a target of his. However, the manner in which he did it was awesome and reminiscent of the driver he’d worshiped.
After Marcus Grönholm retired at the end of 2007, Latvala was called up to partner Hirvonen in the works Ford team, jumping from the second-string Stobart Ford outfit. Things hadn’t started fantastically however on the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally as Latvala punctured on the opening evening and then his Focus RS WRC was restricted to front-wheel-drive only.
But in Sweden, Latvala was supreme. He threw Hirvonen into the shade, constructing a 48.2s lead over his fellow Finn after the first day and conserving that advantage thereafter to record a resounding 48.2s victory.
1. Kalle Rovanperä
Age: 20 years, 290 days
Event: Rally Estonia 2021
There was really little doubt that Kalle Rovanperä would break Latvala’s long-standing 13-year record as the youngest WRC winner, it was more a question of when he would do it. It turned out to be on Rally Estonia 2021 where everything just fell into place.
Rovanperä joined Toyota one year earlier in 2020 and took his first podium at just the second time of asking, in Sweden. Fast rallies were earmarked as his arena to shine and this performance did little to dispel the theory.
Pressure was mounted on young Rovanperä’s shoulders on Rally Estonia 2020 and Arctic Rally Finland 2021 as a result, but it didn’t come together on either event. A puncture was what did it in Estonia while in the Arctic, Rovanperä simply couldn’t match the pace of Ott Tänak.
Tänak was a fierce opponent for Rovanperä to overcome, but the 2019 world champion made Rovanperä’s life easy when first he got a puncture and then he picked up two more in a rather heavy-footed attempt to make up lost ground.
From there Rovanperä fended off Craig Breen, obliterating the field on the first stage of Saturday morning with a truly epic stage performance that earned him a healthy lead. He simply controlled the affair from there to rewrite a chapter of WRC history.