Racing lines: The new prince of the WRC Car News

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At 21, Kalle Rovanperä is coming of age at the top of the rally

It was an unforgettable moment.

Kalle Rovanperä led every stage of Rally Croatia – until the penultimate, where everything went wrong. With tires unsuited to the conditions, all seemed lost for the Toyota GR Yaris driver before the final test. The fact that he dug deep, cut back and sensationally beat Ott Tänak, whose Hyundai i20 N was equipped with the “good” Pirellis for the road, was a real stunner. Rovanperä is only 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 composure and confidence beyond his tender years. Echoing Max Verstappen, Kalle is the son of a former driver (Harri Rovanperä, winner of the Swedish Rally for Peugeot in 2001). Just like the Verstappens, the junior far exceeds the senior in terms of talent, achievements so far and expectations for the future.

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

how he almost slipped

Rovanperä were unrivaled on the treacherous stages in Croatia, with persistent rain and fog in the highest tests on day one only reinforcing their superiority. Teammate Esapekka Lappi crashed on stage one – an echo of Rovanperä’s fate here a year ago – while two punctures cost Elfyn Evans.

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

But a sizable lead was squeezed by a puncture on the morning of day two, as 2019 world champion Tänak loomed. The Estonian came within 13 seconds, but on the final scenic stage in the late afternoon, Rovanperä gave a “full send” to stretch. Twenty seconds is an abyss in WRC terms. It was probably in the bag.

Such assumptions are foolish when it comes to rallying. Toyota’s forecast called for no rain for the final morning, so Rovanperä took four hard compound Pirellis and some spare wet weather tires for insurance, with Tänak and Hyundai betting on softs with a pair of wet tires reserved. They wouldn’t return to the service park once they left for the final four stages, so this choice was crucial – and it backfired on Rovanperä in spectacular fashion when a downpour soaked the penultimate event.

He now had nearly 30 seconds to spare, but on a mixture of two hard slicks and two knobby tires he was powerless to stop Tänak, on two soft tires and two wet tyres, gobbling up his savings.

He didn’t say much at the end of the stage. He didn’t need to: the look on his face said it all. Approaching the final Power Stage, his comfortable lead had suddenly become a deficit of 1.4s. It would all come down to the last eight miles.

How he saved her

The rain had stopped on the Power Stage and the roads were dry, but with Rovanperä still on hard four Pirellis against Tänak’s soft four, Toyota’s hearts sank.

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

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

“Fortunately I did. Kalle’s first [time] a split appeared and everyone was amazed. No one could believe how he could drive so fast. It’s a miracle, the speed was so high. How did he get away with the hard tyres? Then he won the stage.

Rovanperä was 5.7 seconds quicker than Tänak to snatch victory by a measly 4.3 seconds.

“For me, this is Kalle’s best performance,” exclaimed Latvala, himself an 18-time WRC winner who rallied behind Colin McRae, Richard Burns and the two greats Sebastien, Loeb and Ogier. “I mean, he drove well, but this is by far his best drive.”

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

“We pushed really hard and we deserved it,” he said as he exited the GR Yaris. “It’s the best victory of my career and the most difficult.” There should be many more.

Portugal is next

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

Desperately unlucky with an alternator problem Friday lunchtime, Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe were forced to push their 1.4 tonne car 800 meters into the service park, collapsing from exhaustion in the process – but four minutes late. This meant a heavy time penalty. By Sunday morning, the pair had regained third place, only to have Neuville plunge into a ditch on the final stage. Now luck was on his side because the car…

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This notice was published: 2022-05-05 08:51:03

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