TARTU, Estonia: Kalle Rovanpera, a 20-year-old Finn, became the youngest winner in the World Rally Championship when he took the Estonia Rally yesterday. Rovanpera beat Hyundai’s Craig Breen by almost a minute and broke the record of another Finn, Jari-Matti Latvala, now his boss at Toyota, who was 22 when he claimed his first victory in Sweden in 2008.
The former Skoda driver, who lives in Estonia, was joined by his father Harri, a one-time rally winner, at the finish line. “It has been a difficult season and it’s really nice to get it here in Estonia. It’s almost a home rally and a lot of fans were here supporting,” Rovanpera told the WRC’s website. “It has been a long season so far with not so good results, but we proved that the pace is there and now we can bring it home which is good,” he added.
Belgian Thierry Neuville finished third for Hyundai, 1min 12sec behind, after winning three of the day’s stages and finishing second in the other three. Seven-time champion Sebastien Ogier finished fourth to extend his overall lead in the drivers’ championship to 37 points over Toyota team-mate Welshman Elfyn Evans who was fifth.
Home hope and four-time race winner Ott Tanak won three stages yesterday, including the closing power stage, but finished 22nd more than 1hr 2mins slower than Rovanpera after temporarily abandoning on Friday following three punctures on his Hyundai. He moved up to fourth in the overall standings, leap-frogging Tanak, and is 14 points behind third-placed Neuville.
Rovanpera had held the lead in Estonia since Friday’s fourth stage as he followed in his dad’s footsteps after Harri’s Sweden Rally victory in 2001. Rovanpera junior was just 11 months old at the time of his father’s sole success and began driving aged eight. He started competing as a 14-year-old in Latvia and won the national title in 2016 and 2017.
Son of a driver
He made his debut at the Wales Rally GB later that year and claimed his first points in Australia the following month. Last year, Rovanpera was the youngest driver to reach the podium when he finished third in Sweden. This season he finished second in the Arctic Rally on home snow before going one better on Sunday just across the Gulf of Finland less than five months later. Rovanpera is often compared to another prominent young driver, Max Verstappen, who is leading the Formula One standings for Red Bull.
Also the son of a driver, the Dutchman, who came through the Red Bull driver development program, made his Formula One debut in 2015 at 17 years 5 months and 15 days, before winning his first Grand Prix in 2016 at 18 years 7 months and 15 days. “I’ve heard it before and I think it’s pretty flattering,” said Rovanpera who has been connected to Red Bull since he was 16.
Rovanpera has plenty of time to dethrone the youngest ever WRC champion, Britain’s Colin McRae, who won the title in 1995 at 27 years, 7 months and 25 days. “He is part of a new generation of drivers but he seems to be ready despite his young age and knows how to analyses with a lot of experience,” said his first boss at Toyota, four-time world champion Tommi Makinen. While Rovanpera rarely smiles in public he is not without a sense of humor. He told AFP that he chose 69 as his car number because: “That way, when I put the car on its roof, the number stays the same”. – AFP