Running first on the road on a gravel rally was supposed to be the lifeline for Kalle Rovanperä’s World Rally Championship rivals after he’d pulled a 29-point lead over them heading to round four in Portugal.
But it wasn’t.
Faced with the challenge for the very first time, Rovanperä shrugged it off and won anyway.
Sardinia didn’t create the same success story – Rovanperä was only fifth – but after such a strong run and an even bigger championship lead with closest rival Thierry Neuville crashing, nobody batted an eyelid.
Since, the narrative has begun to pivot. Hyundai, and in particular Ott Tänak, has really upped its form and Rovanperä has had two poor rallies in a row.
So when Rovanperä languished in just ninth overall after the first day of Acropolis Rally Greece (and then pranged his Yaris against a tree) suddenly it was a big deal.
Questions have therefore been raised as to whether Rovanperä is bottling the title, but there’s another key point of interest that lies within. How come he was able to sweep the road as if it was nothing earlier this season, but now is clearly struggling?
As always, Jari-Matti Latvala is a good man to turn to for such investigations. As the most experienced driver in WRC history and Rovanperä’s boss at Toyota, he’s well qualified to provide us with an answer.
Predictably, he’s got one
“What we’ve seen with Kalle is he can be strong like this year in Portugal when there is space, when you have roads where you have space and you can pick up the line, then it’s fine for Kalle,” Latvala explained.
“The problem was for Kalle in Sardinia and also in Greece when it was a very narrow road and a technical road, that was difficult for him. When he is opening the road which is fast and flowing, it’s not such a big problem for him.”
Watch any onboard from Rally Portugal, compare it to the Acropolis Rally, and you’ll see the difference for yourself. In Greece, there’s only really one line that a driver can choose. That makes the job of the road sweeper even more arduous as the line they are clearing from dispersing the track of loose gravel will provide those further behind with more grip, more traction, more speed.
The same theory rings true for events like Portugal, but when there’s more road to play with and more opportunity to slide the car, drivers may take different lines. And when that’s the case, those behind aren’t necessarily facing a 100% cleaned road, so compared to somewhere like Greece they have less grip, less traction, less speed
So what can we expect in New Zealand? A rally that’s famous for its cambered roads and gorgeous flow. It certainly shouldn’t be as big a problem as in Greece or Sardinia as New Zealand fits the fast and flowing mould, but running first still can’t be considered any kind of advantage for the championship leader.
“Of course we want to wish for rain for Kalle because that will make his road position more equal,” said Latvala, “but if it’s dry conditions with the loose gravel that you have over there in New Zealand you might be suffering – not as much as in Greece this is sure but yeah, you will be suffering.”
Let’s throw to the man himself. How is Rovanperä himself feeling about the challenge that lies ahead this week?
“Recent rallies have not been ideal for us but we know what we need to improve and we are working hard to have more pace and be more comfortable,” he said.
“Again we will be opening the road in New Zealand but hopefully we can have good speed, enjoy the event and finish with a good result.”