One question has come up time and time again in relation to Kalle Rovanperä this year: How?
How did he do that? How is that possible? How long is this domination going to continue?
Most importantly, though: How is he this good?
Craig Breen has a theory.
“I think when you’ve known no different from day one, by the time your being spoon fed you’re nearly driving,” Breen told DirtFish. “So I think maybe there’s something natural he’s built up over all those years on top of a bucket full of talent at the same time. So it’s the perfect storm.”
That’s the rival’s take. But that merely scratches the surface. Practice makes perfect. The 10,000-hour rule. It applies across the board to most things. He started young, sure – but several of the WRC’s elite have been karting since they were young children, honing their future craft from the very start.
Over the last few years, Toyota’s technical director Tom Fowler has gotten to know Rovanperä well. He’s watched him develop from World Rally Championship rookie to world champion in waiting.
Naturally, he checks off the most obvious component of Rovanperä’s rapid ascent to the pinnacle of rallying: “His brain has been absorbing rally driving for the same amount of time as it’s been absorbing language,” he rightfully points out. Dad Harri, himself a winner in the WRC, has trained him well for a very long time.
It’s not just God-given talent. It’s not just being well-prepared now that he’s gone professional.
Rovanperä was meticulous in his preparation before he got anywhere near the WRC.
“The thing that’s maybe most important is that what I’ve realized is that the sport, and the sport in the whole world, has completely changed,” explains Fowler. “The way that sport is played in such detail; Kalle’s approaching it in a way that the people who have spent their life driving sims do.
“It’s not the same. Rallying has come a long way. We go a long way back, it’s a couple of people with maps and a road car with maybe a better seat belt in it. Now what the guys are doing to prepare themselves, Kalle’s been doing that since he was a kid.”
“That’s why I think it’s a bit of a different situation. I think he’s not driving the car better. He’s competing in the sport as an entirety in a whole new way.”
That sim racing reference is easy to dismiss out of hand. Being fast on a video game does not guarantee to make you fast in reality.
Rovanperä does do sim racing. The widely lauded Richard Burns Rally is a favorite of his when streaming on Twitch, the online gaming platform.
But sim racing is a grind. It doesn’t cost more money to do a thousand extra virtual miles of testing. You can do a run, finish, restart immediately and go again. And again. And again.
Rovanperä is the first member of Gen Z that’s gone pro in the WRC. The stacks of extra tools at their disposal are giving them new ways to train their brain to handle seeking out every last millisecond – in a discipline that a few decades ago didn’t even bother measuring gaps in tenths of a second.
Romet Jürgenson is not a rallying megastar. Not yet anyway, there’s still time for that. But his example is an important one here. He won the European final of FIA Rally Star earlier this year, qualifying for a CrossCar shootout by winning a virtual challenge.
What’s impressive in this context is not that he soaked up the pressure of the Estering final and went quickest. It’s what he did when sat at home with a games console without any built-in telemetry to work from.
I would do 10 runs, then compare my splits, tried to improve, then did 20 runs again, tried to see if I’d improved.FIA Rally at Home winner Romet Jürgenson on the modern approach to sim racing
He fired up the laptop and generated his own dataset to track his progress. No data logger? No problem. He did it manually.
“In each of the Rally At Home Challenges, we had 100 practice runs per stage, so I think I did all of these practice runs for every event. You could also see the replays of the other players, so I actually compared the other players’ replays to mine and even made a Word document with the splits,” explained Jürgenson.
“I set benchmarks, like a tree [at the side of the road] and I made a split time from there, compared those splits and tried to improve, see where I’m fast and not so fast.
“For example, I would do 10 runs, then compare my splits, tried to improve, then did 20 runs again, tried to see if I’d improved, took the splits and compared them again. Eventually, I was up to speed and then I had the five final runs to really go for it.”
Forget Colin McRae, Tommi Mäkinen, Juha Kankkunen and the like. None of this stuff was around even when Sébastien Ogier, Ott Tänak and Elfyn Evans were coming through the ranks.
That level of methodical training being available to the new generation fundamentally wired Rovanperä’s brain differently, in a way those who came before him had no opportunity to replicate, Fowler suspects.
“If you’ve ever seen any clips of him when he’s doing these home simulator driving things with his TV [sic] channel and he’s doing all other kinds of things at the same time. He’s typing on the keyboard, he’s driving the car…”
Professional rally drivers train their reaction times and concentration levels, allowing them to multitask effectively. They put in the hours. But this is something else.
“I don’t think his brain is driving the car. I think his body is driving the car and his brain is doing all kinds of other stuff.”
It would be easy to assume a natural ability to multitask and soak up the complicated, time-intensive preparation WRC events now require – think multiple runs watching the same onboard, constantly checking pacenotes – would carry across to car setups.
After all, sim racers are known for exactly that: banging in thousands upon thousands of runs chasing the absolute perfect setup, adjusting damper rebound or rollbar stiffness one click at a time to see if it’s a hundredth of a second faster or slower.
But if you thought that’s how Rovanperä does it, you’d be wrong. Very wrong.
“Kalle doesn’t have a car setup. He just drives,” says Fowler.
He’s embellishing, of course. He does have a setup. It’s just that he figures out what he wants during the pre-event test, then leaves it alone once the rally is underway. No setup experiments to find extra speed.
Let’s try that again. Does Kalle really have a car setup?
“Well, of course he does,” Fowler concedes. “But he doesn’t change much at all. He’s just driving. He takes from the test what he thinks is the best for each condition and his setup changes are minor.”
This sounds familiar. Very familiar. Like someone else said the same thing earlier this year.
That’s because they did. It was Malcolm Wilson. Speaking about nine-time world champion Sébastien Loeb after he’d won the Monte this year.
“He did the whole rally and never changed a damper click, he didn’t change an anti-roll bar setting, he didn’t change the springs,” said Wilson as he addressed the M-Sport troops at Dovenby Hall, in what transpired to be an extremely rare victory celebration that didn’t involve Rovanperä.
“I think the only thing we did was we put him a set of brake discs on. That just tells you how natural the guy was.”
With Fowler’s theories on why Rovanperä has been so good at such a young age, there’s hopefully only one ‘how’ question left to answer now.
How do you beat him in a straight fight?
Thus far, nobody seems to have figured out the answer.