Understanding what makes Rovanperä so good

DirtFish spoke with several key members of the Toyota team to understand what makes Rovanperä tick


Sunday, October 2 2022 will forever be remembered as the day the goal posts changed in the World Rally Championship.

Kalle Rovanperä’s star had always threatened to rise as soon as the rallying world was left stunned by what he could do behind the wheel of a rally car at just eight years old.

But on Sunday, just a day after his 22nd birthday, Rovanperä confirmed what we all knew would happen one day. He became World Rally champion.

The sky, as they say, is the limit. Given how effortless he’s made it seem at times this year, what happens next? You’d have to assume he’s got at least another couple of championships in him given his age and his performance level, but who’s to say it’s not a whole lot more?

What’s abundantly clear however is Rovanperä is no ordinary driver, continually defying logic. A supernatural talent? A freak of nature? What makes him so special?

With the help of those that know him best, DirtFish attempts to answer that question and understand what makes Rovanperä the driver – and world champion – that he is.

What’s so special about his driving?

You don’t win a world championship in any discipline of motorsport without being a seriously good driver. Rovanperä is, of course, no exception.

Whether it be his breathtaking raw speed, exemplified by his against-the-odds powerstage win to hit back at Ott Tänak and steal victory in Croatia, his utter command of proceedings when the going gets wet, his composure under pressure or ability to perfectly judge the balance between risk and reward, Rovanperä has come on leaps and bounds in 2022.

But he’s always been a very special driver, and perhaps was always destined to be.

“He is very special, and to pinpoint his specialty – we cannot say it. He’s unique,” says Hans de Bauw, Toyota’s marketing and communications leader.


“He was born to become a champion. Some people become a rally driver, they have the desire to become a rally driver like a football player, but he was made to be a rally pilot and to become a champion.

“It’s in the genes, it’s in the blood, he lives for it – but in a very relaxed way. He doesn’t think about it, he just lives to be a rally pilot and that is what makes him special or different than other people or other drivers.”

Asked what the difference with Rovanperä is compared to others, Mikko Hirvonen laughs: “Speed!

“I mean for sure he’s incredibly fast, but I think the way he can just handle pressure, and at his age be so mature as well. Even in Rally Finland, he really would have liked to win the rally but he was still cool and thought of the bigger picture and settled for the points.”

“I think his strongest point is let’s say the capability to read the most difficult road conditions, which is the main key for rallying and he’s really quick to adapt and in a way set his pace according to the conditions,” says Rovanperä’s engineer Taavi Ellermaa.

“On the other hand also what makes him so strong is, how should I say that, he doesn’t get really affected by other drivers. He has quite a clear mindset, he’s only focused on himself so that’s the two strongest points I would say.”

Toyota technical director Tom Fowler pinpoints Rovanperä’s extraordinary natural feel for driving, that therefore enables him to learn things much quicker than most, as a key difference maker.

“I think the main thing is not any one particular thing, it’s just the fact that he learns so quickly,” Fowler explains.

“I think the fact that he’s been driving cars for so long that driving the car is such a small amount of what he’s doing means he has a huge amount of extra capacity to understand what’s happening, to understand the feeling from different elements of the car and put them together to understand how can I make this car better? How can I make myself better? How can I make the strategy better?

“It’s not just all about how do I drive the car faster, he’s thinking about so many things at the same time. He’s got the capacity for that and I think that’s probably the biggest difference that we’ve seen with him.”


As a photographer in the WRC for the past 20 years and counting, McKlein’s Colin McMaster knows a good driver when he sees one. And while snapping the world’s best in all sorts of locations, McMaster has observed plenty about Rovanperä’s driving.

“I have to say he is so, so smooth. When you see him he commits to a corner, full attack, but it’s smooth. There’s no extra corrections, he’s got it set up perfectly, entry, apex, exit, it’s a joy to watch actually.

“He’s got it fully under control. You wouldn’t really expect anything else from this 22-year-old who has everything under control in life.”

Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala has worn the covers out on his thesaurus this year as he tries to find new words to describe his driver. But, referencing his own driving career, it’s Rovanperä’s rate of progression and level-headed approach that stuns him.

“I’m really surprised how quickly he has developed and learned, like last year you could see the speed was already there, but then he did some mistakes like going off the road in Croatia when he was leading the championship.

Lindstrom04POR22cm476 (1)
If you would go into the car blindfolded and not seeing the driver, the way he drove you would not imagine that he was 16 at that time Kaj Lindström on Rovanperä's first WRC test

“And taking that experience, and learning from that experience and becoming so stable it’s been amazing to see and I would never have expected it to happen,” Latvala says.

“This kind of mature reaction you would see from Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier, but they were both in their 30s already at that time when they were winning the championship.

“I haven’t seen anyone at the age of 22, even Max Verstappen in Formula 1 he won the races but it took years to win the championship. So this is something I have never seen before so this is amazing that at that age he can calculate and be that smart.

“When I was his age, I just wanted to win every stage. The championship didn’t matter, I just wanted to be faster on every stage.

“OK I went off the road occasionally, but sometimes I succeeded as well but overall at that age it’s normally up and down.”


Nothing appears to faze Rovanperä. Problems don’t register as problems, moments don’t register as moments, and driving a rally car isn’t a mission, it’s muscle memory.

There was perhaps no better example of that than when Rovanperä secretly tested a Toyota Yaris WRC in Finland when it was still under development back in 2016. He was just 16 years old at the time.

Toyota sporting director Kaj Lindström was at that test, and remembers it well. Lindström sat in with Rovanperä for one of the runs, and was deeply impressed by what he saw. It was if Rovanperä had been driving World Rally Cars all his life.

“If you would go into the car blindfolded and not seeing the driver, the way he drove you would not imagine that he was 16 at that time,” Lindström says.

“The car handling, everything was brilliant.


“You can feel when the driver takes the car, is there two passengers or is one the driver, and you could feel that he can drive the car.

“Those kinds of boys, they’re not born every year.”

His mental fortitude today has always made an impression on Lindström.

“I think that’s one of his strengths, the way he handles the pressure, it seems that he has the nerves of steel and I think that helps him concentrate on the stages and otherwise just stay calm and focused.”

What’s he like as a character?

Toyota has worked with its fair share of world champions in the recent past, welcoming Ogier into the fold back in 2020 and watching Ott Tänak grow into a world champion behind the wheel of one of its cars too.

Those inside the Toyota tent are well qualified to comment on what Rovanperä’s working habits are, and how they differentiate from other great drivers and champions.


“He’s a clever person I have to say it like that, he’s not hassling with stupid things, he’s focusing on the right thing all the time,” says Teemu ‘Tank’ Hirvonen, crew management at Toyota.

“He isn’t so interested in what others are doing he does his own job and it looks like that moment is working very well.”

“Actually Kalle is quite a nice and pleasant guy to work with,” adds Ellermaa.

“Let’s say he’s quite open minded, he doesn’t have his strong opinion, and he always learns and listens to what the engineers are proposing to him.

“Whether it’s right or wrong, he kind of has, let’s say, the capability to always listen to the best information and to take advantage of this.”

Rovanperä’s smart then, receptive to different concepts and open to everyone’s ideas.

“He’s really relaxed to talk to and really easy going, but then again really, what’s the word, ambitious in a way,” explains Mikko Hirvonen, who is Rovanperä’s route note crew driver.

“We’ve been working quite hard in finding a good way to do this work that we can together, because it always takes time to get to the same level so that I can think like he thinks, or I see what he sees.

“Because as a driver I might look at the things in a certain way, but that’s not what we are looking after. I need to see what Kalle sees and we are working better together, so that kind of takes a little bit of time but it’s going better and better.”

What stands out about Rovanperä to McMaster though is down-to-earth personality. Of course he has an ego – no professional driver doesn’t – but he doesn’t let it consume him. To the uninitiated, you’d have no idea just how successful he is.

“I’ve never seen a youngster come into this sport and take it by the scruff of the neck so quickly and so confidently, and he just oozes confidence in what he’s doing, everywhere You see it, and not only that the personality’s brilliant,” McMaster says.


“I get on very well with him and you can joke around in English, but a conversation with Kalle, it’s two-way. There’s a follow-up and he asks you how you are, it’s not a one-way thing and he’s not a superstar in his own mind, he’s just getting on with doing his job and enjoying it.

“I see him at stage starts getting ready and he’ll say ‘how are you, what was the stage like, where have you been, what are you doing’ – it’s a proper interaction and I do really like that with him.”

Rovanperä’s humility is maybe in stark contrast with the confidence and swagger he displays when behind the wheel, but it’s a trait that’s helped him further bond with his team and can only help his career. After all, nobody wants a problem child in the ranks.

De Bauw adds: “He’s very relaxed, very smart, very intelligent, thinks a lot – he doesn’t show it but he thinks a lot. A very humble person, and a very relaxed, young guy who likes stuff like young people do. So he lives a relaxed life, but he does what he likes most: cars.


“I haven’t seen a person like him, never shared the base with a person like him, and also there was a big change I believe for Kalle.

“The first year that he was sitting in the Yaris it was all learning, he looked good, he was taking the grapes out of the basket, learning a lot and now he’s mastering it.

“And he became a man overnight, and he’s really on top of things.”

Can he possibly get any better?

Rovanperä could have 10, 15, even 20 years ahead of him in the WRC if he so desired – although he has indicated to DirtFish that he doesn’t expect that to be the case. Instead he suspects he may go on to pastures new at some point in his career.

But that won’t be anytime soon, so we have to ask the obvious question: can he get any better?

“I believe so, he can get better,” says Lindström. “But how good? We don’t know. But he’s good.”

“I think Kalle is getting better all the time, every rally,” adds Tomi Tuominen, television pundit and former co-driver.

“It seems like he is going up all the time and the other ones, they are on the same level. But this is just my opinion and maybe it’s a romantic story but you know what I mean?

“Who knows where is the end of that story, nobody knows, but it seems that he doesn’t need to be better because he is good enough.”

Fowler points to Rovanperä’s serene ability to learn as reason to believe there are still improvements to come.

“It seems like he’s learned a lot just in the break between two years which is a little bit surprising, but of course he’s so young he has that capacity,” he explains.


“So in many ways, it was there ready to happen, it was just whether all the things came on his side at the same time.”

Nobody knows Rovanperä’s driving more than Ellermaa though, given he has just engineered him to a maiden world title.

Ellermaa’s answer isn’t going to enthuse Rovanperä’s rivals around the service park.

“For sure, there’s always room to improve. He’s still young, it’s only his third year in this big category so he can only get better.”

It’s scary to wonder just how far Rovanperä could go. Gifted, grounded and destined for greatness, the only thing stopping Rovanperä from rewriting all of the WRC records is himself.