I remember the first time I met Kalle Rovanperä. I was considerably more nervous than he was, even if the stakes were far higher for him.
It was Rally GB 2019, and my job for the weekend was to cover the WRC2 and Junior WRC reports for Motorsport News.
A massive privilege for anyone, but something of a watershed moment for a 22-year-old aspiring rally journalist. And it came with plenty of fever! Petter Solberg was making a one-off return in WRC2 (which he won) while Oliver made his World Rally Championship debut.
The Junior WRC title was to be decided, and so, as it turned out, was WRC2 Pro. The men on the brink of that particular glory? Mr Rovanperä and Mr Jonne Halttunen. Hopefully we can all appreciate the opportunity that lay before me, but it was nothing compared to Rovanperä.
Nervously walking around the Newtown regroup looking for somebody to interview with the talented Josh Folks in-tow ready to capture it for Autosport’s social media, I went for it.
“Kalle, have you got a quick minute?”
“Yes, of course”.
In truth, I can’t quite remember what he said, or even what I said. Of course at the time that’s all I was interested in, but looking back it’s not what sticks out.
Here was this teenager, who’d just turned 19 a matter of days before, fully decked out in Škoda and Red Bull colors, on the cusp of a world championship. And yet I was the one who was on the backfoot. I was the one who was somewhat flustered. From that very early encounter, Rovanperä’s composure has always stood out to me.
Now I like to think I have improved in this regard, but I’m not the one out of the two of us with two world championships to my name. I’d say his career has been a bigger success story than my own!
If Sébastien Loeb redefined what it means to be successful as a rally driver, Rovanperä has completely revolutionized how to do it. That 19-year-old who stood before me in an unusually dry Wales had already started 18 WRC events. By the time Loeb had contested 18 world rallies, he was basically a decade older (28).
There’s no disputing then that Rovanperä’s special, but he’s not the only person in world motorsport we can say that about at the moment. He’s not the only one to tear up the rulebook and laugh in the face of the supposed ‘norm’.
You might have heard of the other guy. He’s called Max Verstappen. The kid who’s probably going to win a record-extending 17th grand prix in a single season today.
I can’t really call him a kid, as Verstappen’s the same age as me and – sadly – I’m very much not a kid anymore! But I would place strong money on those who were there when Verstappen made his Formula 1 debut in 2015 as a 17-year-old feeling what I got a brief glimpse of in Wales those years ago.
‘Wow, this guy is going to go places.’
Comparing our very own Verstappen (Rovanperä) to Max himself is a tempting route to go down given the two are currently bossing their respective disciplines.
But there’s more to it than just the numbers. I happen to think there’s actually lots of common ground between Rovanperä and Vertsappen, and here’s why:
They belie their age
My entire introduction to this piece sort of spells this one out, but it’s important to fully address it.
If you purely listened to an interview from Rovanperä, you simply would not know he is only 23. The maturity with which he speaks and handles himself is remarkable, and the same applies to his aptitude behind the wheel.
Some of the decisions Rovanperä makes are that of an individual far older and supposedly wiser than his relative lack of experience would have you believe.
The same goes for Verstappen. Granted, the Red Bull driver perhaps had more maturing to do than Rovanperä did, with a couple of seasons – particularly when paired with the more experienced Daniel Ricciardo – littered with impatience and somewhat rash decisions.
But in fairness to Verstappen, he did become the youngest winner in F1 history by winning the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix at the age of just 18 – a record that parallels with Rovanperä’s in WRC.
It took longer for Verstappen to win a title, but he didn’t immediately walk into a championship-winning team like Rovanperä did. Either way, both drivers are extraordinary talents who are achieving things we’ve all been led to believe are impossible at such a tender age.
They’ve been bred to be champions
Both Rovanperä and Verstappen’s backstories are fairly well-known but let’s recap, and begin with the F1 star.
Son of Jos Verstappen (a name now mentioned on these pages for his rally driving exploits in recent years), and daughter of Belgian kart champion Sophie Kumpen, the writing was on the wall for Verstappen as he grew up.
With talent in his genes and a supremely determined approach for success, Verstappen was karting regularly at the age of six and was world champion by the age of eight – winning all 21 races of the 2005 Belgian Championship Mini!
By 2013 he made history by winning two European championships and a world title in karts, and two years later he was a Formula 1 driver for Toro Rosso (now Alpha Tauri).
Rovanperä’s background is remarkably similar, with experience at an eye-wateringly immature age and a professional driver for a father.
Son of ex-Peugeot factory driver and one-time WRC winner Harri Rovanperä, Kalle had the perfect tutor to learn about rally driving. At three years old he was already riding bikes and ATVs, and by six he was driving cars when people like me were just pushing them around rugs.
Then there was the famous Starlet video, showing Rovanperä drifting the Toyota around in the snow when he was just eight. Two years later he entered his first rally, and the rest became inevitable.
Debuting in the WRC at 17, driving a Ford Fiesta R5, Rovanperä was picked up by Škoda for two years in WRC2, but had already signed a contract with Toyota which began in 2020.
For both, driving isn’t just a skill – it’s an instinct. That’s not so rare for Formula 1 drivers who all traditionally start incredibly early, but Rovanperä is rare in the rallying world for learning how to control a car quite so young. It means none of his brain capacity is focused on driving the car, giving him a great strength over others.
They’re both intrigued by other things
Both Rovanperä and Verstappen are undisputed masters of their chosen motorsports. If they wanted to, they could go for years and break every single record that they haven’t already taken!
But there’s a lingering sense that neither will do so.
For Vertsappen, sportscar racing could be what pulls him away from Formula 1. He already owns his own team, Verstappen.com Racing, which is running Thierry Vermeulen in DTM and of course Jos in rallying, but Max also has skin in the sim racing game too with Team Redline.
Out of contract at Red Bull Racing in 2028, Verstappen still has at least five more years behind the wheel of an F1 car, which could enable him to break the existing wins record (103) and championship record (seven) – both held by Lewis Hamilton, with the latter shared with Michael Schumacher.
Verstappen currently has 51 race wins and three championship titles. But he’s often said that this isn’t what motivates him, and he’s keen to explore other opportunities in motorsport in the not-too distant future.
The candidness and openness with which Verstappen will openly discuss his future and the potential for one day going off and exploring new challenges is also remarkable, in an era where sporting stars are often criticized for lacking personality and sticking to their PR-friendly lines.
It’s the same for Rovanperä.
And like Verstappen, the Finn is also keen to dip his toes into other areas of motorsport. He already does a lot of drifting (and very successfully) and has been very honest with the media about the fact that he isn’t motivated by trying to match the rallying records held by Loeb.
He’s got so much time on his side, and so much talent, that he could turn his hand to whatever he wants and be incredibly successful at it.
Just like Verstappen.
But Rovanperä will always be the superior of the two in my eyes. And that’s only partly to do with the fact he gave up half-a-minute for a complete nobody (me) in the middle of a regroup.
Above all the driving brilliance and ever-expanding trophy cabinet, Kalle’s just a thoroughly good guy.