And so it begins. Kalle Rovanperä’s run of World Rally Championship wins is under way. Where will this road take the 20-year-old? His countryman Hannu Mikkola won his 1983 title at the age of 41. How many titles will the world’s youngest ever WRC rally winner have bagged by the time 2042 comes around?
I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s impossible not to where the son of Harri Rovanperä’s concerned. Unless, of course, you are Harri’s boy. In which case, you’re already behind; Sunday’s Rally Estonia success is, according to him, overdue.
“I thought I could have done it already last year,” said the Finn, with a wry smile buried beneath his Toyota Gazoo Racing mask.
He’s not joking. Not even a little bit.
Last September he was in Tartu with a real feeling he could make the podium’s top step. It was the same in Lapland in February. It didn’t happen. Ironically, a lack of speed on the slower roads on both Rally Estonia last year and Arctic Rally Finland this year cost him his chance.
Last week, Toyota and Rovanperä had all roads covered.
The only potential fly in the ointment? Ott Tänak.
Home hopes dashed
Hyundai’s local hero started the event chasing back-to-back home wins following his hugely popular success in 2020. By lunchtime Friday, Tänak’s race was run.
He lost the lead with a puncture on the third stage, but it wasn’t the end of the world. He’d lost half a minute but, leaning on a wall waiting for the next stage, the 2019 champion wasn’t too stressed. He’d taped up the bodywork on the front-right of the i20 Coupe WRC and was ready to go again.
And go again he did. Arriving at the apex of a mid-stage right-hander far too hot, the car turned combine harvester and attacked a field of wheat. Hitting a rut sideways on the way into the field knocked the two left-hand tires off the rim.
Three punctures meant only one thing: retirement. Had had been tempted to nurse the car through, Tänak knew he would face a one-event ban following his suspended sentence after a similar offence at the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally.
Estonia’s hopes of a sensational weekend of sport were blown apart.
Tänak’s appraisal was predictably swift.
“My fault,” was about as much as he could or would offer on return to service.
He’d be back and back to set a string of fastest times, but that merely served to fuel his fans’ frustration. Next year.
Craig Breen stepped brilliantly into the breach. Tänak’s co-driver moved into first, a second up on Rovanperä.
It was obvious this moment would come. I don’t mind, I took it from Toivonen and Kalle took it from me. After years of French domination, we need to keep some records for ourselves!Jari-Matti Latvala on being succeeded as the youngest WRC event winner
Ahead of the event, Hyundai Motorsport team principal Andrea Adamo told DirtFish he expected more of the same from last year’s Rally Estonia runner-up. That sounded fanciful, given that Breen hadn’t set foot in a gravel set-up i20 Coupe WRC since last September.
Breen was peerless.
Boy wonder turns record breaker
Last weekend, Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala sat down to his final Sunday lunch as the world’s youngest world rally winner. A couple of hours later, the inevitable had happened. Rovanperä hadn’t so much beaten his record as smashed it out of the park. The younger of the two Finns had won a WRC round 753 days earlier than his boss had managed in 2008.
Latvala’s response? Fling his arms around Rovanperä senior and share a moment of unbridled joy. He didn’t care.
“I’d had this record for 13 years,” he told DirtFish. “As soon as Kalle started rallying, it was obvious this moment would come. I don’t mind. I took it from Henri [Toivonen] and Kalle takes it from me. That’s nice. That’s good. You can see it’s nice for the Finn. Honestly, after all of these years of French domination, we need to keep some of these records for ourselves!”
Latvala couldn’t have been more sincere or more emotional.
He cherished the moment. And anyway, as one record slipped away, he set himself another – as the first Toyota team principal to lead the marque to five successive world championship rally wins.
“That’s a special one,” said Latvala, quietly.
But the real special one in Tartu was Rovanperä.
Having eased his way past Breen on SS4, he started to build an advantage through the afternoon. He put a handful of seconds between his Yaris WRC and Hyundai’s part-timer, but he couldn’t escape. Split between 8.5 seconds on Friday night, there was an irresistible feeling that something was coming on Saturday’s opener.
The Peipsiääre test offered 14.62 miles of an Estonian alternative. Gone were the super-quick roads running through fields and forests in top gear. In their place was a stage that twisted and turned on itself. The surface changed almost endlessly, darting between stone, sand, rocks and gravel. But the real complication came with the overgrown foliage providing a tunnel-like feel for miles. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the organizer had installed a, so-called, anti-cutting device on almost every other corner. These varied between a pole embedded into a concrete block that was spiked into the road; a beachball-sized boulder; a hay bale; or a log with one end painted pink.
They were on the inside. On the outside of some of the more built-up roads were ditches that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Kielder. The first of two stages north of Tartu set the crews on a knife-edge ride between triumph and tragedy.
Rovanperä went 14.3 seconds faster than Breen. That’s a second per mile. That simply doesn’t happen in the WRC these days
And, just to make it even more tasty, it was a brand new stage. Everybody had made fresh pacenotes. But who’d made them the best?
Rovanperä and Breen admitted they would be spending longer than usual watching onboards and reminding themselves of what was to come on Saturday morning.
Happy to let his young charger have his head for much of the time, Latvala stepped in when it came to Saturday morning.
“Kalle and I have talked about this,” said Latvala. “He did a fantastic day, but for that stage [SS10] he doesn’t really need to add more [speed]. If it comes to the situation that Craig is coming closer, adjust the pace then – but not to start the day with the absolute maximum. These are new stages and things can happen. He will be smart. I’m confident he can do this.”
And Rovanperä could. But Rovanperä didn’t.
Instead, he went 14.3 seconds faster than Breen. That’s a second per mile. That simply doesn’t happen in the WRC these days.
“It was, for sure, the most difficult stage of the rally,” said Rovanperä. “In the first half, it didn’t feel so good.”
Just to jump in here, he was already eight seconds up at the mid-point…
“Then in the second half, I found some rhythm and some pace and I really enjoyed it. I knew after the recce this would be a key stage with big gaps. The preparation paid off.”
Rovanperä found rhythm by putting his car where few others dared.
The difference was huge. The team principal thoroughly disobeyed. Much to his delight.
“He drove a little different than I thought,” said Latvala. “That kind of commitment, I could never have expected. That was the stage where the rally was decided. He did absolutely right decision to attack. It’s incredible to see this sort of time – you don’t see this sort of stage win in the championship anymore. He was in a huge attack mode and he brought it to the end.”
For Breen, the bubble was burst. Eight seconds mushroomed to 22.8s.
“He blew the doors off us,” said Breen. “It was a bit frustrating. When I was coming to the stop line [after the stage] I was sort of thinking he was going to do something like that. If you’re feeling confident and it’s coming naturally, the time’s there and you can go a lot, lot faster. It’s just a matter of getting it all hooked up.”
How does Breen get it all hooked up?
“A full season in the car,” was the immediate response. “That’s all I need.”
Rovanperä’s massive time through SS10 finalized the foundations for what would become a historic win.
But that was only the half of it. As impressive as the speed through Peipsiääre was his ability to control proceedings from thereon in. Not once did he look rattled. Not once did he look like he might lose.
And he didn’t.
One of Rovanperä’s heroes is Kimi Räikkönen and the resemblance to Alfa Romeo’s Formula 1 driver is striking. With the mask up and the cap down, Rovanperä’s ice-cool and emotionless. The blue eyes give nothing away. Granted, on Sunday afternoon they were shining a little brighter than usual, but he remained utterly relaxed about what he’d done.
As we said at the top of this tale, he was actually disappointed with himself that he hadn’t done it sooner.
One thing’s for sure, win number two won’t be too long in coming. There’s a trip to Jyväskylä in the autumn that he’s already got his eye on.
If we’re honest, everybody saw this one coming from the moment his father shoved a cushion on the seat of a Toyota Starlet and sent an eight-year-old Rovanperä careering across a frozen Finish lake.
As the years passed, priorities became increasingly focused.
“In my last year at school, I was only there for a month with all the tests and rallies,” Rovanperä told me a few years ago.
“There was no point to be there. Now it’s only rallying for me. I don’t do team sports, nothing like that. I drive every day, not always the rally car, sometimes the motorbike or the ATV or something. I don’t care, if it has an engine, I’ll drive it.”
And he’ll be doing it for a long time to come. Driving rally cars is something of a single-minded obsession for Kalle. And, as Sunday showed, he’s turned fast learning into flat-out fast.
Finland, the spiritual home of rallying, has waited a long time for this. French rule for 16 years has hurt in and around Helsinki more than anywhere.
But remember the date, Sunday July 18, 2021. It’s the day the Finns returned to the very forefront of rallying.
The Rovanperä revolution has begun.