The motorsport world is full of ridiculously young defending world champions. Max Verstappen defending a second title at 25 years old, though, is basically ancient compared to Kalle Rovanperä, the reigning World Rally champion.
At just 22 years old, Rovanperä is in his fourth full season at the highest level of rallying. That in no way tells the full story, considering he made his first entry to a top-grade stage in 2017, debuting on the brutally unforgiving courses of the Great Britain Rally the moment he’d passed the test to receive his driving license.
Even that doesn’t quite go far enough back, seeing as he made his professional rally debut aged 14, when he was too young to actually drive the car on the roads between stages. Wait, perhaps I should explain.
The World Rally Championship isn’t like other motorsport. For lots of reasons. It doesn’t take place on manicured circuits and the cars aren’t carefully tended to in high-tech garages. They have to be road-legal vehicles because they run on roads. And gravel and dirt and sand and snow.
Driver and co-driver take on the unpredictable stages, which change with every car passing through them, as a time trial and then drive elsewhere, to a service point. There, mechanics strip and repair the car as quickly as possible, assuming it made it there in time, and then it’s on to the next stage in whatever condition it’s in. Don’t join in unless you’re ready to jump a car 10 feet into the air and 30 yards down the course, while your co-driver patiently tells you the angle of the next four corners.
It’s not for kids. Unless the kid’s name is Kalle Rovanperä.
“It was quite an early start for me, to be honest,” Rovanperä acknowledged in a conversation with ESPN, with some considerable modesty. “I started to drive with all kinds of motocross bikes or ATVs when I was 3 years old, and then I drove my first car when I was 7 years old. My first rally car I drove when I was 8.”
He said this quite reasonably, in cheerful, clipped, Finnish tones, as though I’m likely to reply, “Ah, yeah, I did that too.” But then, my dad definitely didn’t compete in 111 World Rally Championship (WRC) events.
Kalle acknowledged his father, Harri Rovanperä, was a big influence in him deciding to put aside the motocross bikes and head into rallying.
“I think the biggest thing was the family history,” Kalle Rovanperä said. “My dad was a profession rally driver until I was 6, so of course when I was small I saw all that.”
There was just 11 years between Harri’s final rally and Kalle’s debut in WRC.
“I was doing a bit of karting when I was small, but when I first drove the rally car when I was 7 or 8, it was the clear choice,” Rovanperä said. “When you’re small, driving real race cars is quite a lot more exciting than driving karts.”
Rovanperä drove most of the 2019 WRC season with Skoda, immediately proving himself so much he was signed to Toyota’s factory rally team the following year. That’s no small promotion, Toyota take rallying extraordinarily seriously, whether it’s their formidable Dakar team or the WRC outfit, and only the top drivers catch their eye. In fact, team boss Jari-Matti Latvala is still competing himself, running a car alongside his drivers at this weekend Rally Finland.
Typically unfazed, Rovanperä said that making the deal was “really cool,” that it had been a “quite exciting” time for WRC, in a phase of rules change to hybrid cars and sustainable fuel. “Toyota being such a big brand doing everything around motorsport, it felt really easily that it was the right thing to do, I was waiting for it to happen.”
Not that Rovanperä’s laidback attitude is new. WRC commentator and rally journalist Becs Williams said that Rovanperä is “maybe a little bit unexpected” as a rally champion.
“‘I’d have to say I don’t think his personality has changed since the start to what it is now,” Williams said about the driver who, ahead of his home rally in Finland this weekend, is leading the championship by 55 points. “That he’s world champion at a super-early age hasn’t changed him. He is a very cool customer and cool in the terms that he doesn’t get stressed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him under major stress yet in his career, he’s your typical young guy. He’s quite self-assured, but not in an arrogant way. ‘Cool’ is definitely the word to describe him.”
To be so good, so young normally takes a singular focus. Of course, Rovanperä defies expectations there, too, Williams said.
“He has a passion for motorsport and rallying, but he’s not a rallying geek, let’s say,” she said. “He doesn’t talk about it all the time. He’s interested in other things in life. He talks about his family, his dog, who sadly passed away over Christmas.
“He’s into his drifting, he’s not completely 100% tunnel-driven rallying. He’s got other things in life, and he knows that everything is important and not just one thing.”
It’s something that Rovanperä himself admits, having found so much success already in WRC.
“I have quite a big passion for other motorsports,” he said. “I would try drifting or circuit racing.”
Rovanperä stands out, in motorsport, for not living entirely in its bubble.
“Last year when we were at Rally Sweden, the war broke out in Ukraine maybe three or four days in, and the event finished, he won the rally and he said, ‘You know, that there’ll be no real celebrations, my thoughts are with all the Ukrainians right now,” Williams said. “It made me burst into tears listening to him talk, because for someone of such a young age to not be standing on the top of his car celebrating and realizing what real life is all about, I thought was very touching.
“And that’s the kind of guy he is.”
Rovanperä stands to extend his lead at home, with terrain he knows well at Rally Finland. With such a lead over second-placed Elfyn Evans, his second title is almost within touching distance. What he does next will surely be as unpredictable as the spray of gravel and mud from his GR Yaris.