Updated: Sep 8
Written by Apostolos Papageorgiou, Edited by Ishani Aziz
Finnish driver Kalle Rovanperä is currently leading the WRC (World Rally Championship) by a sizable points gap to his nearest rival; Thierry Neuville. This feat becomes even more incredible when you consider it’s only his third full season in the sport and that he is just 21 years old. So how did the young Finn manage to take the rally world by storm?
Born in Jyväskylä, Finland on October 1 2000, Kalle is the son of former WRC driver and rally winner, Harri Rovanperä, who drove for Peugeot during their dominant years at the start of the 21st century. At age eight, young Kalle got his first taste of what it’s like to drive a rally car and just a few years later, he made his competitive debut at rally sprints in Latvia. He won his maiden championship (the Latvian junior championship) in 2015 and followed that up by winning the main championship in 2016 and 2017.
Driving a WRC2 car, the M-Sport Ford Fiesta R5, Rovanperä made his WRC debut at Rally GB, in Wales. He also competed at rally Australia, and became the youngest driver to score a point at 17 years of age. He would compete in the WRC2 in 2018, driving for Skoda Motorsport. He ended up third in the standings, with a victory in Wales. In 2020, aged 19, he was signed by Toyota for their WRC programme. Over the next two years he continued to break records, becoming the youngest podium finisher at Sweden in 2020, in only his second rally with Toyota. A year later, he also became the youngest rally winner, (20 years and 290 days) in Estonia, going on to win Acropolis just two rallies later.
This year, Kalle’s track record has been even more impressive. Finishing fourth in Monte Carlo and winning the power stage, despite struggling adapting to his new Rally1 car. Sébastien Loeb and Sébastian Ogier’s absence meant Rovanperä was starting first on Friday in snowy Sweden, so winning was a tall order. Nevertheless, he kept close and eventually overtook the leaders to storm to his first win of the year. In Croatia, he battled torrid weather and punctures, to ultimately beat Ott Tänak by just 4.3 seconds. That meant he was once again the leader in Portugal, where he managed to go from tenth to second in a single day. On Saturday, Rovanperä used the weather to his advantage to climb to first, a position he would hold on to until the end of the rally. After a quiet round in Italy, finishing fifth, he came out fighting in Kenya, leading on all but one of the four days of the event, going on to, you guessed it, win.
All this means that Rovanperä leads the drivers championship by a whopping 45 points after only six rallies. So how has he managed to achieve this feat? Well, some of the credit must go to the Toyota GR Yaris, which has proven to be reliable, fast on all surfaces and generally the overall best car in the WRC at the moment. On the opposite scale, Hyundai and Ford haven’t been able to match Toyata’s speed and reliability, with their drivers suffering points losses as a result. Lastly, let's not forget Eflyn Evans, who has had a pretty poor campaign so far, crashing out of a podium place twice (in Monte Carlo and Sweden) and with two second places being the only highlights.
These factors have helped Kalle solidify his championship lead, but he wouldn’t be where he was without his incredible pace and consistency. Winning when leading the rally on day one is no mean feat and something only world champions like the two Sebastiens, Tommi Makinen, Marcus Gronholm have achieved. Rovanperä’s other champion qualities is his ability to benefit from others misfortunes, like in Monte Carlo and Kenya, as well as not cracking under pressure, which is exactly what he did in Croatia.
With seven rounds still left (six of them on gravel), the championship is still wide open, but thanks to his incredible talent, Rovanperä has already put one hand on what would be a fully deserved world title, as well as making the entire WRC take notice of his now undeniable talent and establishing himself as a true champion in the making.