Utter dominance is something the World Rally Championship is used to after two decades of success for Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier, both raising the bar of what it takes to be a top rally driver to unprecedented levels.
When Loeb retired from WRC full-time in 2012, Ogier was there to take the mantle. Ogier retired last year, and a certain Kalle Rovanpera has made a huge mark on the WRC in 2022.
It’s frightening how good Rovanpera is, delivering on all the hype that was made about him during his teenage years.
He became the youngest ever WRC champion at 22 years old, beating Colin McRae‘s record by five years.
Rovanpera is also the first Finn to win the WRC title since Marcus Gronholm in 2002, ending their long drought which has haunted them for two decades.
Rallying at the age of eight
Ask yourself this – what were you doing at eight years old? Rovanpera was driving a rally car on a frozen lake near his home in Jyvaskyla, Finland. His father, Harri Rovanpera, was a WRC winner himself so rallying is in Kalle’s blood.
“In my last year at school, I was only there for a month with all the tests and rallies,” said Rovanpera ahead of his WRC debut in 2017.
“There was no point to be there. Now it’s only rallying for me. I don’t do team sports, nothing like that. I drive every day, not always the rally car, sometimes the [motor] bike or the ATV or something. I don’t care – if it has an engine, I’ll drive it!”
This kid began rallying competively in Latvia at the age of 14 as you don’t need a driver’s licence to compete in off-road racing in the country.
He began to win stages, then rallies and titles against more experienced and older competition.
In 2016, Rovanpera attended the Bettega Memorial Rallysprint in Bologna where he drove a WRC car for the first time.
The Finn finished second to Elfyn Evans and beat Thierry Neuville, who finished runner-up in the WRC that year. Evans was stunned by Rovanpera‘s performance in Italy.
“I was impressed from his first warm-up run, where I think he was fastest,” said Evans. “I don’t think there’s any secret that he’s done a lot of driving.
“But still, to get into a World Rally Car at the age of 16 and drive it like he did – well, it was very obvious he’s very talented.
“I don’t know what I was doing aged 15 or 16 – probably still dreaming of driving a World Rally Car!
“There’s no doubt he’s ready for the WRC though. It’s just incredible how young he still looks – people say I looked young when I started, but he definitely looks younger than me.”
Rovanpera made such a statement, he was allowed to take his driving test in Finland a year earlier than the legal restriction of 18 years old.
Making WRC history
Along with co-driver Jonne Halttunen, Rovanpera made his WRC debut at Rally GB in 2017, before signing for Skoda.
Twelve months on, he won his first proper WRC-2 event in Wales with a dominant performance, having taken victory in Australia a year earlier when he was the only competitor.
Another win at Rally Spain followed three weeks later, as he stepped up to WRC-2 Pro in 2019.
Five wins in an impressive campaign saw Rovanpera win the title in a cool, calm and collected manner. It was no surprise to see him join Toyota for his first top class WRC campaign in 2020.
Rovanpera was talked about as a rally winner almost immediately as he scored a podium in just his second WRC start to become the youngest podium finisher in the sport’s history at Rally Sweden.
It felt right for him to break the record on a snow rally, eights years after his viral video sliding on the ice and snow of Finland.
If it were not for a puncture at Rally Estonia two rounds later, Rovanpera may have been victorious after less than a handful of WRC events.
Schooling Ogier and Tanak
At the same event in 2021, the inevitable happened – Rovanpera, a WRC winner, the first of many. More history too, the youngest driver to win a WRC event at 20 years and 290 days.
Perhaps, more impressive than his maiden WRC victory, was his second win at the Acropolis Rally in Greece.
Rovanpera obliterated the field during Saturday’s running by taking more than 30 seconds out of, at the time, the championship’s two best drivers, Ogier and Ott Tanak.
The Acropolis Rally is a contrast to the high-speed rallies where Rovanpera thrived as a teenager, so to gain so much time on two champions was unheard of. This was just his 15th WRC start remember.
The first of many WRC titles
Coming into 2022 there was plenty of excitement surrounding the new hybrid technology in the WRC, brand-new cars and the possible resurgence of M-Sport Ford.
Loeb stole the show at the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally, but since then, it’s all been about the Rovanpera rampage.
He emulated his father Harri by winning Rally Sweden and took the lead of the championship, which he has since held.
“Kalle is maybe different,” said Harri. He’s already got three wins – this is two more than me. Honestly, he a 21-year-old who’s already 30! He’s so mature and so focused on what he’s doing. He’s a different generation.
“But, nice story anyway. When I was winning Sweden [in 2001] I didn’t think I would be talking so much about this rally 21 years later.”
At round three in Croatia, Rovanpera was set for a relatively comfortable victory until a downpour on the final day turned the rally on its head.
A bold tyre choice from Tanak saw him take the lead going into the power stage, which is the final stage of every WRC event where championship points can be picked up for the top five.
Rovanpera needed to turn around a deficit of 1.4 seconds which doesn’t sound like a lot, but having been 19.9 seconds ahead of Tanak heading into the final day, momentum and the conditions were not on his side.
Somehow, the he produced a stunning drive by putting everything on the line with a magical performance to win by 4.3 seconds.
More brilliance followed at Rally Portugal, this time Rovanpera fended off the challenge from Toyota teammate Evans.
Let’s not forget, Evans was the driver pushing Ogier to the title in 2020 and 2021, yet it seems, no matter what he throws at Rovanpera, the youngster has the answers.
It doesn’t matter that Rovanpera was sweeping the gravel roads, he just doesn’t get flustered and can read the conditions like nobody else to limit the damage on the opening day. Going first on a gravel rally for the opening two days should be a big disadvantage, not for Rovanpera.
He proved this again in Kenya with another flawless performance before dominating Rally Estonia.
In Belgium and Greece, the Toyota driver proved he was human with two uncharacteristic mistakes only to hit back by winning the title in style at Rally New Zealand.
It was maximum attack on the final day even though he had a big advantage of 29 seconds over his nearest rival Ogier.
Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala has seen Rovanpera become the superstar he is now, stating he reminds him of Ogier.
“It was the same like 2013,” said Latvala after Rally Portugal. “It was when Ogier was starting his domination in the Volkswagen team.
“The performance Kalle is making so far this season is feeling the same – but to be doing this aged 21 is something really special. We didn’t see this kind of performance from a driver so young before.
“I remember when Sebastien was doing this in Volkswagen. His results were putting everybody else under pressure – including myself!
“Every time he won another rally, more pressure on the rivals was coming. It’s like this now. The other drivers are under pressure to try to beat him, but it’s so tough because he’s so strong right now.”
How far can Rovanpera go?
Before the start of the 2022 WRC season, we said it’s a matter of when, rather than if, Rovanpera will become champion.
The great McRae was 27 when he won his one and only championship in 1995, Rovanpera might have five WRC titles under his belt by the time he reaches that age.
He has no weaknesses and is consistently operating at such a high level, that his rivals are pushing too hard and crumbling.
Toyota have created a robust, reliable car this year which Rovanpera is making the most of. Only Tanak has what it takes to consistently give him a fight when his Hyundai isn’t breaking down or falling apart.
Maybe, Oliver Solberg can give Rovanpera a run for his money when he joins WRC full-time, but the 20-year-old’s career has stalled a little recently after he also seriously impressed as a teenager.
By then though, Rovanpera will only be more experienced which is a huge asset to have in rallying.
“It’s really important what Kalle has done,” said Latvala. “First of all, it’s amazing for a 22-year-old to be breaking all the records and taking the championship title.
“At the same time, it is so important for Finland because it has been 20 years and that’s a very long time.
“Myself and Mikko Hirvonen were so close but we couldn’t take the title, there was two Sebastiens and Tanak, so I am so grateful that Kalle did it. It is amazing. I have no words. – he is a superhero.
“You could feel that the interest for rallying was going down, down and down [in Finland] but since Kalle has been going so well it has risen again.
“I think in Finland we are seeing a Kalle phenomenon because I have never ever seen a situation like that in the stages where you had fans like that in the stages where you had fans like you get in a football stadium.
“From time to time you need these champions to keep the interest up and that also helps get the younger people into the sport and all the levels. Not only for Kalle I think it will be a really important championship for Finland.”
There are parallels with reigning Formula 1 champion Max Verstappen, who also broke multiple records for being young and has already bettered his father Jos Verstappen.
Unlike Verstappen, Rovanpera is in a sport where there is more onus on the driver and he is so talented, that the generation of Neuville, Evans and Craig Breen simply aren’t good enough to compete with such a young force.
Ogier‘s title WRC titles, and Loeb‘s nine championships are a long way away, but Rovanpera is rewriting all the rallying history books, so a decade on from now, we could be talking about a Finn who is a double figure WRC champion.