Racing lines: The new prince of WRC

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At 21, Kalle Rovanperä is coming of age at the peak of rallying

This was one to remember.

Kalle Rovanperä led every stage of the Croatia Rally – until the penultimate one, where it all went wrong. On tyres unsuited to the conditions, all looked lost for the Toyota GR Yaris driver ahead of the final test. That he dug deep, pulled back his deficit and sensationally beat Ott Tänak, whose Hyundai i20 N was fitted with the ‘right’ Pirellis for the road, was a genuine spine-tingler. Rovanperä is just 21 years old – and he’s a phenomenon.

Croatia marked the Finn’s fourth victory in the World Rally Championship, and he has now won on gravel, snow (at the previous round in Sweden) and asphalt. Always a good sign.

True to the national stereotype, he doesn’t say much but exudes a poise and confidence beyond his tender years. In an echo of Max Verstappen, Kalle is the son of a former driver (Harri Rovanperä, who won the Swedish Rally for Peugeot back in 2001). Also like the Verstappens, junior far exceeds senior in talent, achievement so far and expectations for the future.

Clearly, the WRC has a new prince – who looks destined to become its next king.

How he almost slipped

Rovanperä was peerless on the treacherous Croatian stages, persistent rain and fog on the highest tests during the first day only enhancing his superiority. Team-mate Esapekka Lappi crashed out on the first stage – an echo of Rovanperä’s fate here a year ago – while two punctures cost Elfyn Evans.

Toyota’s Welshman is also an emerging world-class talent, but even without those setbacks, he would have been hard-pressed to live with Rovanperä, who scooped six of the day’s eight stage wins.

But an expansive lead was slashed by a puncture of his own on the morning of day two, as 2019 world champion Tänak loomed. The Estonian got to within 13sec, but on the scenic final stage of the late afternoon, Rovanperä gave it ‘full send’ to stretch away. Twenty seconds is a chasm in WRC terms. Surely this was in the bag.

Such assumptions are foolish in rallying. Toyota’s forecasts predicted no rain for the final morning, so Rovanperä took four hardcompound Pirellis and a couple of wet-weather spares for insurance, Tänak and Hyundai gambling on softs with a pair of wets in reserve. They wouldn’t be coming back to the service park once they set out for the final four stages, so this choice was crucial – and it backfired spectacularly for Rovanperä when a downpour soaked the penultimate test.

By now he had nearly 30sec in the bank, but on a mix of two hard slicks and two treaded tyres, he was powerless to stop Tänak, on two softs and two rain tyres, gobbling up his savings.

He didn’t say much at the stage’s end. He didn’t need to: the look on his face spoke volumes. Heading into the final Power Stage, suddenly his comfy lead had become a 1.4sec deficit. All would come down to the final eight miles.

How he saved it

The rain had stopped on the Power Stage and the roads were dry, yet with Rovanperä still on four hard-compound Pirellis versus Tänak’s four softs, Toyota hearts sank.

“At that point, we thought we had lost,” said team principal Jari-Matti Latvala.

“There was quite a lot of mud on the road and we knew Ott had better tyres. I started to calculate how many points we were going to lose to Hyundai, but eventually I threw the paper away.

“Lucky I did it. Kalle’s first [time] split 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? Then he won the stage.”

Rovanperä was 5.7sec quicker than Tänak to snatch back victory by a scant 4.3sec.

“For me, this is Kalle’s best performance ever,” gushed Latvala, himself an 18-time WRC winner who rallied against Colin McRae, Richard Burns and the two great Sébastiens, Loeb and Ogier. “I mean, he has been driving well, but this is by far and away his best drive.”

Rovanperä wasn’t about to get carried away (he’s Finnish, remember), but the magnitude of what he had pulled off wasn’t lost on him.

“We pushed really hard and we deserve it,” he said as he stepped from the GR Yaris. “It’s the best win of my career and the toughest one.” There should be lots more.

Portugal is next

Back-to-back victories have left Rovanperä with a commanding 29-point lead in the drivers’ standings over Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, who had his own amazing story to tell from Croatia.

Desperately unlucky with an alternator problem on Friday lunchtime, Neuville and his co-driver, Martijn Wydaeghe, were forced to push their 1.4-tonne car 800 metres into the service park, collapsing in exhaustion as they made it – but four minutes late. That meant a hefty time penalty. By Sunday morning, the pair had stormed back into third place, only for Neuville to nosedive into a ditch on the final stage. Now luck was on his side as the car bounced out and he motored to the finish, with two punctures, to secure his podium place.

What a stage, what a day, what a rally.

The only shadow is the absence of Ogier, who has committed to only a part programme with Toyota this year as he chases new ambitions in sports cars.

The reigning eight-time champion finished second to Loeb on a sensational Monte Carlo Rally back in January, as the old masters showed the new generation the way. But right now, how would he stack up against a fast-maturing Rovanperä? We might be about to find out. The gravel roads of Rally Portugal are next, Toyota has a fourth GR Yaris on the entry list and Ogier is likely to be driving it. Another epic looks assured.

Good week

Max Verstappen: A ‘grand slam’ at Imola – pole, victory and fastest lap, and even first place in the sprint – marked the 22nd win of his Formula 1 career so far, equal with Damon Hill. When he has finished a race this year, he has won it. A second title beckons.

Bad week

Charles Leclerc: The F1 points leader didn’t have the pace to beat the Red Bulls at Imola, so why didn’t he settle for third? The unforced error that left him clouting a tyre wall and needing a pit stop for a new nose cost him and Ferrari seven points. That could be crucial at season’s end.

Source: Autocar

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