What does Mondello Park, on the outskirts of Irish capital Dublin, have in common with the muddy, rutted roads 75 miles northwest of Kenyan capital Nairobi?
Nothing. And yet the first made a difference to what happened at the second on Saturday.
Kalle Rovanperä likes to drift. A lot. To the point he bought a custom-build Toyota Supra A90 from Japanese drifting legend Daigo Saito and recently used it to compete in Europe’s top-level drift series, Drift Masters.
And he was immediately competitive. He qualified seventh and made it as far as the last 16 of the knockout phase.
In other words, he’s very good at drifting. And he takes it seriously. Not a surprise, given how many years he’d been doing it beforehand.
But some competitive fun in Ireland a month ago surprisingly came in handy in Kenya this week.
“I think always driving different kinds of race cars is good,” Rovanperä told DirtFish.
“On the mud also the drifting helps me. I know a few things to do with the throttle differently and maybe it helps.”
That begs a question: why? What about drifting – which takes place on sealed surface tracks and favors dry conditions over wet – could possibly have relevant transfer to rough and rutted rally stages?
Craig Breen struggled his way through the Elmenteita test that Rovanperä ran rings around everyone on, and the subsequent Sleeping Warrior stage that caught out so many.
He had been driving slowly and carefully, painfully aware all the other M-Sport cars had succumbed to various issues. But in the water-filled ruts of muddy Kenyan stages, even that didn’t stop slides and spins. And it had some problematic side effects.
“A couple of times we got stuck and then managed to get ourselves going again at the last second,” explained Breen. “Incredibly difficult. Incredibly difficult conditions.”
This, ultimately, was the key to Rovanperä mastering the horrendous conditions. He did the opposite. He sent it, and sent it big time.
So too did Thierry Neuville, of course – his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 being sent directly into a tree. But Rovanperä’s team boss Jari-Matti Latvala suspects he understands why drifting made the difference in the mud.
“In these kinds of difficult conditions, the way that he likes to do this drifting, I think it was also helping him to drive in this difficult condition because when you have muddy, slippy conditions, you can’t be neat and tidy,” Latvala said.
“You have to be aggressive, that’s the only way to keep the speed and keep the wheels cleaning themselves. Once you try to be tidy, trying with the front, you start to understeer and you kill the speed.”
Understeer is a word to send a shiver down the spine of every drifter. It is fatal to pulling off a clean run and putting big points up on the board. In a form of motorsport where bigger rotation is a critical dimension of scoring, balancing a slide on the absolute cliff edge of grip is a necessity.
When Rovanperä scored a 93 at Mondello Park, hanging his Supra out as sideways as he dared, little did he know that it would be the key to putting up a 9m47.1s on the Elmenteita leaderboard a month later in a GR Yaris.