WRC drivers to defend their maiden world title

In becoming a double world champion, Kalle Rovanperä joins two very special lists

Juha Kankkunen Story

You’ll often hear it said that once a first championship is won, the rest becomes a bonus. If that’s true, Kalle Rovanperä has just entered dreamland.

Second on Central European Rally, with title rival and Toyota team-mate crashing out, has ensured Rovanperä retains the title he secured for the first time last year, making him the only multiple world champion to be competing full-time in the World Rally Championship just now.

It also draws Rovanperä level in a special club with Walter Röhrl, Miki Biasion, Carlos Sainz and Marcus Grönholm as a double WRC champion.

But the 23-year-old Finn has achieved something three of those drivers haven’t in retaining his title the year after he first won it.

In fact, just five other drivers before Rovanperä ever managed to successfully retain their maiden drivers’ title, and here’s how they did it:

Juha Kankkunen

Swedish Rally Karlstad (SWE) 14-16 02 1986

Triple K made history when he managed to win the championship in 1987, as he became the first ever driver to retain his world title.

Kankkunen’s maiden drivers’ crown was claimed in the final year of the Group B era. Driving for Peugeot, victories in Sweden, Greece and New Zealand helped him to defeat Lancia rival and fellow Finn Markku Alén.

Alén initially looked to have defeated Kankkunen, but the results of the controversial Sanremo Rally – where Peugeot was disqualified for supposed illegal side skirts – were annulled, handing the championship to Kankkunen.

For 1987 Kankkunen and Alén were team-mates, where along with Miki Biasion they all entered seven rallies each. Kankkunen scored fewer wins than both Alén and Biasion but greater consistency ensured he became 1987 champion too.

Miki Biasion

Rallye Sanremo San Remo (ITA) 8-12 10 1989

Frustrated by Lancia team politics that he felt favored Biasion, Kankkunen left for Toyota in 1988 and as its Celica went through teething troubles, Biasion was left to dominate in his Delta.

Five wins from seven starts allowed the Italian to comfortably become world champion for 1988, with team-mate Alén settling for the runner-up spot.

Biasion’s 1989 was marginally less dominant than ’88, but he and the Lancia once more proved to be the package to beat as they waltzed to world title success in 1989 as well.

That made Biasion the first driver to defend his world title with the same team.

Tommi Mäkinen

Rac Rally Cheltenham (GBR) 23-25 11 1997

Tommi Mäkinen, though, became the first driver to win four championships with the same team, and claimed them all consecutively.

Kankkunen had become a four-time champion by 1993, but Mäkinen was about to destroy his record when he stole the champion status from Colin McRae in 1996.

As the World Rally Car era was ushered in, Mitsubishi stuck with its Group A Lancer which was honed to Mäkinen’s taste and style.

Mechanical failures for McRae’s all-new Impreza WRC made Mäkinen’s life easier as he won the 1997 title by just one point in the end, successfully defending his maiden success.

He would then go on to win the 1998 and 1999 crowns with Mitsubishi too before the rest caught up and dethroned this dominant partnership.

Sébastien Loeb

Omv Adac Rallye Deutschland 25-28 2005

Had Citroën not asked Sébastien Loeb to consider the manufacturers’ championship as he was taking on Petter Solberg in a winner-takes-all finale for the drivers’ crown in 2003, might we be talking about him as a 10-time world champion?

Either way, ending up just one point shy in 2003 marked Loeb as a real contender for the 2004 drivers’ title. And the Frenchman duly delivered on that promise, sealing the deal two rounds early in Corsica.

Loeb didn’t just retain that crown, he held onto it for each of the next eight seasons. His 2005 campaign was one of his most dominant ever, and it ultimately took retirement for Loeb to relinquish his world title in 2013.

Like Biasion and Mäkinen, Loeb never won a title without it being part of a consecutive sequence.

Sébastien Ogier

WRC Rally Australia, Coffs Harbour 12-15 September 2013

Sébastien Ogier is the man who took over from Loeb as world champion, and like his namesake he took hold of that crown and barely ever let go.

Ogier’s first world title was a breeze in Volkswagen’s first season in rallying, but he was made to fight harder to retain his title as team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala put up a stern challenge.

Ogier ultimately had enough to secure the championship though, and even when VW left after 2016 he kept winning after a move to M-Sport.

The only time Ogier was defeated to a championship after he won one was in 2019 when Ott Tänak and Toyota proved too hot to handle for Ogier and the tricky Citroën C3 WRC to handle.

Kalle Rovanperä


And so we come to the man of the moment: Kalle Rovanperä.

In circumstances similar to Ogier, Rovanperä’s first world title was won at a relative canter. A blistering start with three wins from four propelled Rovanperä into a dominant lead that even a small blip mid-season couldn’t derail, and a day after his 22nd birthday the Finn became world champion – breaking Colin McRae’s record as the youngest ever driver to do so.

His title defense started a lot slower with just one podium from the first four events, but victory in Portugal – as his rivals also suffered – kickstarted his campaign. An utterly dominant victory in Estonia was undone by a rare crash in Finland, and Rovanperä’s challenge from Elfyn Evans across the Toyota garage was absolute.

But the Finn was able to defeat the Welshman (helped by Evans crashing on the second full day of Central European Rally) to become the sixth driver in history to defend his maiden World Rally title.