Tue 26 Apr 2022

Rovanperä: the tale of two smiles behind an epic finale

A shrug of the shoulders and the forced smile from beneath Kalle Rovanperä’s helmet at the end of Sunday’s penultimate stage at the Croatia Rally said it all.

Words were not needed.

Having dominated this third round of the FIA World Rally Championship since Friday morning’s opening speed test, the Finn found himself staring defeat in the face after an unexpected downpour turned the top end of the leaderboard upside down.

Unexpected for him and his Toyota Gazoo Racing team maybe. Not so, for his Hyundai Motorsport rivals just down the gravel road in the Zagreb Fair service park.

They had called the weather perfectly and sent second-placed Ott Tänak out for Sunday’s quartet of special stages with four Pirelli soft compound P Zero tyres and two wet weather Cinturatos. They knew the rain was coming and when it did Tänak bolted the Cinturatos onto his i 20 N.

Rovanperä didn’t stand a chance. He also had two wets, but the other two tyres were hard compound, which offered little in the way of grip on streaming asphalt. In 13.15km he conceded just under 30sec to the Estonian. His 28.4sec lead had been transformed into a 1.4sec deficit.

The 21-year-old is mature beyond his years and, as always, he opened the door to face the inevitable question. He stared into the WRC+ All Live camera and the disappointment in his voice was all too obvious when asked if he could regain the lead.

“For sure, not with these tyres,” he lamented. “I do not know where this weather came. We had no idea that there was going to be rain at all. We cannot match him with the soft tyres, that is for sure. The hard is not working at all so there is not much more we can do.

He expanded later. “With two wet tyres we could cross them, but with two hard tyres in full wet it was not really working well. It’s tough when in the whole stage you know you are losing a lot of time and you cannot really do much about it.

“You try to carry speed but you do not have the grip. That kind of situation is devastating because you cannot do anything else.”

Rovanperä had a lot of thinking time before the closing 14.09km Wolf Power Stage. There was a near-60km liaison section to the regroup in Kumrovec and then 75 minutes waiting before checking out for the Zagorska Sela - Kumrovec test.

His mindset changed. The sun came out and the roads were dry again. There would be a lot of mud and dirt remaining in the corners and Tänak’s tyre package was favourable. But what was there to lose? He had more than a minute in hand over Thierry Neuville in third.

“I was just sat there [in the regroup] preparing for the stage,” he told WRC.com. “And then I decided I would go for it.

“I thought that it’s maybe possible, but I didn’t really think that it’s possible like this. I was sure that the softer tyres that Ott had would be better.”

After the first split at almost 6km, the GR Yaris man was exactly a second faster. At the next timing point, with just over 3km remaining, the margin was up to 4.3sec. He was ahead again. At the finish the clock showed a 5.7sec advantage. Kalle had claimed an epic victory by 4.3sec.

It was his fourth win from the last nine WRC rounds. Estonia, Greece, Sweden and now Croatia. But this one was special.

Once more, words were not needed. “I couldn’t have gone any faster. This was the trickiest win overall,” was his understated reaction. The glint in his eye and the smile on his face, genuine and not forced this time, said so much more.

Video: Croatia Rally onboard - Kalle Rovanperä
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