Ever since that sizzling run between Zagorska Sela and Kumrovec in Croatia back in April where he grabbed five bonus championship points and the rally win from Ott Tänak, Kalle Rovanperä has looked every bit the new World Rally champion in waiting.
The train may have momentarily run off the tracks in the Belgian countryside a little under a fortnight ago, but this is still an express service on course for just one station: the World Rally Championship title.
But the question is how? How has Rovanperä managed to blow absolutely everybody to pieces and create such a lead this season, when last year he was only the fourth-best rally driver in the world?
It’s certainly a multi-faceted question, which provides many answers and avenues to explore. There’s the obvious points like his five rally wins from nine; or his ability in the rain where he’s been particularly supreme this season.
He’s made far fewer mistakes too. Rovanperä obviously had his blunder in Belgium, but Tänak smacked a rock face on the Monte, Thierry Neuville was wild in Croatia, off in Italy and off in Belgium too, while Elfyn Evans slid off on the Monte and threw it into a snowbank head-on (twice) in Sweden.
But while all of the above is true and has undeniably contributed greatly in elevating Rovanperä so far clear of the rest, there’s one other key area that Rovanperä has absolutely aced this year. The powerstage.
It’s perhaps not featured so heavily on the radar as Rovanperä has raced away so much that who’s scoring the bonus points hasn’t really altered the championship picture too much, but Rovanperä has absolutely owned the powerstages in 2022.
He’s won more than half of them (five) so far this season, with Safari Rally Kenya the only event Rovanperä failed to register any extra points.
Powerstage points so far in 2022:
Tänak and Neuville are the only drivers other than Rovanperä to win a powerstage this year – Tänak topping the times in Sweden wtih Neuville claiming two powerstage wins back-to-back in Italy and Kenya.
And while Neuville (and, to his credit, Evans)’s percentage of points gained from the powerstage is actually higher than Rovanperä’s, the fact Rovanperä’s statistic is so competitive with theirs when, excluding powerstage poitnts, he’s scored over 200 championship points after just nine rallies is utterly remarkable.
Some of them have been totally unnecessary too. Think Portugal, where he went 2.1 seconds faster than anybody else on Fafe just because he could. Or Finland where his margin of victory was even larger at 3.1s – claimed at a phase of the championship where Rovanperä didn’t really need to push for all five bonus points either.
The fact he’s prepared to gamble for more, even with so much in the bank, points to a ruthless effectiveness that’s hugely worrying for his rivals.
Other powerstage wins have been more important. That aforementioned Croatia performance was always going to net a powerstage win given his push for the rally win, while in Ypres he spent the best part of one and a half days preparing for a powerstage assault following his crash.
Monte Carlo appeared, at the time, to be a tactical masterstroke from one of Rovanperä’s rivals – Craig Breen – who scored no bonus points and therefore ceded the position of first-on-the-road in Sweden to Rovanperä.
Looking at the trajectory of this season, that hasn’t quite panned out for Breen. Rovanperä won in Sweden anyway and proved you always benefit from scoring as many points as you can.
But what Rovanperä produced in Estonia was not just the best of this year’s bunch, it may well be the best powerstage performance ever. In the changing conditions, Rovanperä’s 9m18.2s stage-time on Kambja was a stupendous 22.5s quicker than team-mate Evans who was just one car ahead on the road.
Rovanperä’s total of 38 points from the powerstage this year may feel irrelevant in a season he’s dominated, but the fact he’s not just outscored his rivals on the rallies but demolished them on the powerstage too shows just how confident the 21-year-old is.
He has absolutely everything under his control, and is maximizing every single opportunity presented to him.
With Rovanperä often winning, the powerstage has been the main chance for his rivals to limit the damage. But he simply hasn’t let them do that this year.