Rovanperä's 'miracle' Croatia WRC drive — emergence of the next rally great?

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Kalle Rovanperä might be only 21, but he now has four WRC wins to his name – Damien Smith looks at why the Finn's latest in Croatia beggared belief

ROVANPERA Kalle (fin), Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT, Toyota GR Yaris Rally1, portrait during the Croatia Rally 2022, 3rd round of the 2022 WRC World Rally Car Championship, from April 21 to 24, 2022 at Zagreb, Croatia - Photo Nikos Katikis / DPPI

A scintillating win for Rovanperä in Croatia was a demonstration of maturity far beyond his years

Nikos Katikis / DPPI

A “miracle” drive? Strong words, especially when they come from a man who rallied against the great Sébastiens, Loeb and Ogier. Jari-Matti Latvala, now team chief at Toyota Gazoo Racing’s World Rally Championship squad, isn’t one for hyperbole. But what he’d just witnessed from Kalle Rovanperä, his 21-year-old ace in the WRC pack, blew him away. In fact it had the same effect on everyone who witnessed the Croatia Rally last weekend.

This was the kind of performance people don’t forget, a marker moment for the WRC’s future. It’s the solid proof of what Latvala, Toyota’s rivals and most rally fans already knew: Rovanperä is a special kind of talent. In fact, we should probably rename him Sébastien now and be done with it.

He’d won the Swedish Rally in the snow, just like his old man Harri did for Peugeot back in 2001, following gravel victories in Estonia and on the Acropolis last year. Now on lethal and unpredictable asphalt, in devilishly changeable conditions, he conquered a third surface. Always a good sign. But how he did so was what made Rovanperä in Croatia memorable.

ROVANPERA Kalle (fin), Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT, Toyota GR Yaris Rally1, portrait during the Croatia Rally 2022, 3rd round of the 2022 WRC World Rally Car Championship

Toyota boss Latvala thought the Finn’s Friday efforts were his best yet in a WRC car


Latvala hailed the Finn’s first-day performance on Friday as his best yet in a WRC car, Kalle winning six of the eight stages to open up a dominant lead, in at times almost impossible conditions. On the highest stage down towards the Adriatic coast, the mix of rain and pea-soup fog looked daunting in the extreme from the onboards. “The stages are so far from each other it was like going to different places in the world,” was how Ott Tänak put it.

Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville kept Rovanperä in sight during the morning, but an alternator failure on the way back to service – that required Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe to push their i30 N Rally1 the final 800 metres – cost them a hefty time penalty. Rovanperä had more than a minute on the field overnight: rare in the WRC these days.

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A puncture the following morning slashed that advantage and put 2019 champion Tänak within range, the Estonian closing to 13 seconds. But Tänak was honest about his form in the Hyundai, much improved since its difficult debut asphalt rally in Monte Carlo back in January: he didn’t really feel capable of matching Rovanperä’s GR Yaris Rally1 on the same tyres and in the more benign conditions that welcomed the crews to the second day’s final stage. Sure enough, Rovanperä blitzed that one to stretch his lead to near 20 seconds.

Just four stages to go, on Sunday morning. Rovanperä surely had this one covered – until Toyota failed to predict the heavy rain that turned the penultimate stage into a slithering survival run. Rovanperä had headed out for the final leg with four hard-compound Pirellis and a couple of wet-weather spares as insurance; but Hyundai gambled, giving Tänak four softs and his own rain-tyre reserves. That was fine for Kalle over the first two runs as his lead stretched to 28.4sec. But when they got back to Trakošćan – Vrbno for a second pass, the rally gods did their worst: even with his two wet-weather spares fitted, the mix with the hard rubber just didn’t work for Rovanperä, as Tänak suddenly began to fly on his combo of soft slicks and treaded Pirellis.

In just eight miles, Kalle’s 28.4sec lead became a 1.4sec deficit, with just the similar-length Power Stage to run. He’d led every inch since Friday morning, and now this. How cruel.

08 TANAK Ott (est), JARVEOJA Martin (est), Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team, Hyundai i20 N Rally 1, action during the Croatia Rally 2022, 3rd round of the 2022 WRC World Rally Car Championship, from April 21 to 24, 2022 at Zagreb, Croatia - Photo Nikos Katikis / DPPI

Latvala and co thought the rally was lost at one point to Hyundai’s Ott Tänak

Nikos Katikis / DPPI

“At that point, we thought we had lost,” Latvala admitted. “The rain came and we knew it had also been raining on the Power Stage.” Had been, but not any longer. By the time the crews reached Zagorska Sela – Kumrovec for their second and final pass, the road was mostly dry. But mud and dirt thrown on from the many corner cuts still made any grip a bonus. Now back on hard Pirellis all round versus Tänak’s four softs, Latvala, his engineers, plus Rovanperä and co-driver Jonne Halttunen themselves, prepared for the worst.

“We were looking at the first WRC2 cars on the stage and there was quite a lot of mud on the road,” said Latvala. “We knew that Ott has better tyres for the conditions. Basically I started to calculate how many points we were going to lose to Hyundai. But eventually I threw the paper away thinking this was a waste of time, it’s nonsense to do it. Lucky I did it.

“Then the first split [time] of Kalle appeared and everyone was amazed, nobody could believe how he could drive that fast. It’s a miracle. The speed was so high. How could he manage it with the hard tyres? Somehow he did and won the stage.”

Latvala was genuinely staggered – and delighted: “For me, this is Kalle’s best performance ever. I mean, he has been driving well, but this is by far and away his best drive.”

Rovanperä was a searing 5.7sec faster than Tänak over those final eight miles, to clinch the victory he’d always deserved by 4.3sec. Spine-tingling stuff – and as we said at the top, the kind of line-in-sand performance no one will forget in a hurry.

Naturally, Rovanperä fits the Finnish national stereotype. We were never going to get effusive descriptions of those moments or what it meant to him. But he knew what he’s just pulled off. “I was sure we could not be so fast with these tyres, but it’s amazing,” he said as a microphone was shoved under his nose upon emerging from his Yaris. “We pushed really hard and I think we deserve it this weekend. For sure, it was the toughest win of my career.”

Amazing to think he’s still only 21 – and now holds a 29-point lead over Neuville in the championship. The Belgian had his own remarkable Croatian story to tell, having charged from his alternator problems and another smaller penalty to depose M-Sport’s Craig Breen from the podium on Sunday morning – only to nose-dive his Hyundai into a ditch on the Power Stage. For once, the luck was with him: the i30 bounced out and with two punctures, Neuville nursed it home to secure that third place.

ROVANPERA Kalle (fin), Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT, Toyota GR Yaris Rally1, portrait during the Croatia Rally 2022, 3rd round of the 2022 WRC World Rally Car Championship, from April 21 to 24, 2022 at Zagreb, Croatia

An incredible final stage performance saw Rovanperä snatch victory


The only shadow over Rovanperä’s amazing performance? There was no Ogier in another Yaris for him to beat. The reigning eight-time champion has only committed to a part-programme in the WRC this year as he chases his ambitions in sports car racing. He and Loeb embarrassed the new generation by leading them home on the Monte, Loeb narrowly defeating his old foe – and without them you can’t help but wonder if victories lose a bit of their sparkle. But as the old sporting adage says, you can only beat who is in front of you and on this evidence in Croatia, even Ogier would have been hard-pushed to match Rovanperä’s consistency and speed. Niggling punctures, a problem for Pirelli last weekend, might well have decided it had the champion been present. Not to mention that crucial tyre choice on the final morning.

Come the gravel stages of Portugal, we will indeed get to see how the fast-maturing Rovanperä matches up to established rally legend Ogier, who has now been confirmed for its fourth Yaris on that event. They’ll face the improving Hyundai in the hands of the accomplished Neuville and Tänak, plus also Loeb coming back for another crack in the M-Sport Ford Puma… May 19-22, looks set to be unmissable. Let’s hope for more miracles.