With all of the celebrations, plaudits and appreciation for the chapter of World Rally Championship that Kalle Rovanperä has now firmly inked, it’s easy to forget there was still a rally on at the weekend.
Of course Rovanperä bossed this too, but it wasn’t always shaping up to be a Rovanperä masterclass in New Zealand.
There were plenty of others who could very easily have won it, and others that always looked doomed from the off, and obviously there’s the story of the return to New Zealand for the first time since 2012.
So here’s what we learned from Rally New Zealand 2022:
Rovanperä remains the WRC’s wet-weather master
We’ll get the obvious one out the way first, shall we? Rovanperä is world champion. Submission over. OK, we’ll stop being facetious, as there was a key detail within his title-clinching performance that’s more than worth highlighting.
The race to become 2022 champion was never really on (as Tänak was continually keen to point out) given Rovanperä’s epic start to the year, but Rovanperä was providing the neutrals with hope after his two sub-par performances in Belgium and Greece.
Halfway through Rally NZ it looked like Tänak was again going to somehow keep the title race mathematically alive at least, deferring Rovanperä’s coronation to the penultimate event in Spain.
But then the rain came, and Rovanperä simply checked out. Pulling back the hotel curtains on Saturday morning to see the deluge, Rovanperä knew he had a chance and made full use of it. Two stages later, he was leading.
Rovanperä’s ability to drive so much faster than anyone else in the rain remains startling. He’s like a cheat code as soon as the going gets slippery.
And the swagger was back. Once out front, all he needed was fourth place on the powerstage but Rovanperä went and beat Tänak to win it anyway, the ultimate statement to convert his lead into the title in what has been the ultimate season.
M-Sport’s still in trouble without Loeb
It’s become a bit of a running theme of WRC rallies now for the All Live stream to cut to an interview with a dejected Richard Millener, giving his immediate and honest reaction to one of his drivers going off the road. Even the interviewers are starting to feel guilty for it.
M-Sport’s Puma Rally1 remains an extremely capable car – both Craig Breen and Gus Greensmith proved that on SS2 Whaanga Coast with Breen taking the lead of the rally and Greensmith the fastest time on the stage to establish an early one-two.
But just like in Greece, the dream start soon faded to a nightmare – only this time far more quickly. There was a touch of irony in Breen’s incident as he went off on the same corner Colin McRae fell down 20 years ago, also in a Ford. Greensmith’s crash was far more violent, and terminal.
The inescapable truth though is that, on current form, M-Sport can’t be taken as a serious victory contender without Sébastien Loeb in the lineup. And as much as Loeb is a driving god and statistically the greatest to ever take on the WRC, for a driver that stopped competing full-time in rallying 10 years ago to be the team’s clear talisman is more than worrying.
M-Sport will dust itself down and go again in Spain as it always does, but it’ll be a very long flight home to Cumbria with no result to speak of and another big repair job to complete. That euphoric beginning to the season feels like a very, very, very distant memory now.
Ogier looks reinvigorated
They weren’t being shouted loudly, but there were some questions about Sébastien Ogier’s commitment and enjoyment levels this year after a puncture cost him the lead on Safari Rally Kenya. Whereas Ogier of old would’ve done everything to get that lead back, the outgoing world champion basically just cruised it home to finish this time around.
But three months out of the car, and a healthy summer break, have done Ogier the world of good. He returned to a rally he had been looking forward to all year with a score to settle given the events of 2010, but was relaxed, chilled and stress-free in the build-up to the event.
It showed on the stages. There was a slight gaffe on Thursday’s opener when he did one more donut than he needed to around a bollard, but from there it was a typically clean and efficient rally where Ogier did his best but didn’t bust a gut to risk it all, realizing that as soon as Elfyn Evans went out on Saturday, his role was to protect a perfect result for the team – which is exactly what he helped deliver.
As Ogier pointed out, he will never celebrate a second place like crazy. But he can be happy to have returned to the WRC podium for the first time since January as it gives him a great platform to build on for Spain and Japan.
Hyundai’s reliability issues remain
At Acropolis Rally Greece, Hyundai looked bulletproof. All three of its cars avoided major technical trouble while the Toyotas and M-Sport Fords dropped like flies, and the team recorded the very first 1-2-3 finish in its WRC history.
But New Zealand proved to be less fruitful for the crew in orange-and-blue. Yes, Hyundai was the only team to have all three of its cars avoid retirement – and deputy team director Julien Moncet was rightfully pleased by this – but all three of its drivers were plagued with gremlins.
A reoccurrence of transmission trouble blunted Tänak’s pursuit of victory on Saturday afternoon. Then, of course, there were the bizarre penalties he and Thierry Neuville both received twice, with Hyundai engineers not correctly calibrating the hybrid system for SS1 and SS7 and leaving it to produce too many kilojoules of energy. Oliver Solberg was penalized just 10s as his car was legal for SS1 but Tänak and Neuville were docked 15s.
Neuville then lost third gear on Saturday morning which obviously restricted his pace and Solberg’s i20 dropped onto three cylinders for the afternoon. While this is far from the deep doldrums Hyundai found itself in at the start of the year, New Zealand was a sobering reality check after three wins on the bounce.
There’s a rally driver in van Gisbergen
One of the most exciting entrants on this year’s Rally NZ was two-time Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen. But you didn’t have to look too far to find him, as the circuit racer was fighting for the top places in WRC2 and came home third in class, ninth overall.
Was it a surprising result? Hayden Paddon – who was cream of the crop in Rally2 – says not; in fact he says he expected it. And in a way we all should, because van Gisbergen has been devastatingly fast and a supremely fast learner on his rally outings in his home country have proven. But that doesn’t make the fact he was, and is, this good any less impressive.
Van Gisbergen was a breath of fresh air last weekend. While drivers at the very front of rallying are there to do a job, SVG was very clearly just having a ball and going supremely quickly while doing it. His post-stage conversations on his way to the stop control with co-driver Glen Weston were a constant highlight of the weekend.
Were it not for a puncture, van Gisbergen’s first in a rally car, third may well have been second, but to score a podium on your WRC debut and fifth-ever rally is utterly incredible.
Let’s hope to see more of him in the WRC one day soon.
Kajetanowicz’s WRC2 title bid is still on track
Kajetan Kajetanowicz’s cunning strategy to get his hands on a world championship trophy this year is far riskier than you might imagine, as if he doesn’t pull it off the heckling and potential egg-on-face will be enormous.
But so far, it’s proving to be a winning strategy. Second place in New Zealand, and on the powerstage, has helped move him from title frontrunner to title favorite.
Pre-event Kajetanowicz knew racing Paddon just wasn’t feasible, so instead he targeted getting ahead of the brigade of other locals – a task he equally knew wouldn’t be easy.
And while on raw pace Kajetanowicz may not have matched them, his WRC experience showed as the national drivers began making small errors (or big, in the case of Ben Hunt) and couldn’t overhaul the visiting WRC3 runner-up.
With two point-scoring opportunities left in Spain and Japan, Kajetanowicz is now just 13 points down on Andreas Mikkelsen, who has no more rallies to contest.
Kajetanowicz has to drop points of course. But even if you factor in his current drop of 10, the turnaround of his 23-point deficit looks very achievable – particularly in Japan, where like New Zealand he will face a slimmer entry of Rally2 chargers.
Mikkelsen’s best hope is for Kajetanowicz to be eaten alive in Spain, which may not be a total pipe dream given the strength in depth of the entry there.
New Zealand delivered
Ten years is a long time to wait for anything, but for roads as gorgeous as those in New Zealand, it felt like murder. So much so that this generation of WRC drivers (many of whom had never competed there before) couldn’t contain their excitement after seeing the stages on recce.
Ultimately, the rally itself became a serious challenge with the intense rain and changing conditions, but drivers were still enjoying the character of the stages so won’t be regretting the long haul flight to compete.
There were elements that could be improved – Sunday’s entire leg being shorter than the first stage of Friday for example was a little bit embarrassing, and competitive mileage in general proved to be a bit of a sticking point for some – but on the whole this can only be considered a positive return to the WRC for New Zealand.
The dense lines of spectators lining the stages certainly proved that local appetite for the event was sky high. Unfortunately they’ll be in for a wait again next year with New Zealand set to be off the 2023 schedule, but it shouldn’t be too long until the WRC is back in one of the most stunning rallying countries anywhere on this planet.