Kalle Rovanpera starts on the back foot this weekend as he defends an early-season FIA World Rally Championship lead in Croatia, the event that marked his low point of 2021.
The Toyota Gazoo Racing driver holds a 14-point advantage ahead of the Zagreb-based Croatia Rally (April 21-24), round three of the WRC and the first pure asphalt fixture of the series’ new hybrid-powered era.
Twelve months ago, the 21-year-old Finn was in a similar position in Croatia’s first ever WRC appearance, but the youngest driver ever to lead the series crashed out on the opening special stage.
Rovanpera, who took the 2022 points lead after dominating on the snow and ice of February’s Rally Sweden, admits his lack of knowledge of the complex, low-grip speed tests in the hills around the Croatian capital puts him at a disadvantage. But he’s up for the fight.
“Everybody has now one more year of experience there, so I think it’s going to be a bit difficult for us,” explained the GR Yaris Rally1 driver. “But we have been in that situation also before and we just try to manage that the best way possible.
“It’s going to be more tricky for me this year. [Last year] it was a new event for everybody and it seems that it was quite a tricky one. Everybody said the stages were quite difficult with the grip. Watching the videos, it seems the grip was changing all the time.”
Fastest for Rovanpera on Thursday’s 2.27-mile pre-event Shakedown stage was a confidence booster, his Toyota edging Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai by just 0.1s in a super-close session where the top-five runners were covered by 1.3s.
This second edition of the Croatia Rally has a lot to live up to. Last year’s was a thriller, with Sebastien Ogier snatching victory from Toyota teammate Elfyn Evans when the Welshman slid onto the grass at the final corner of the final special stage. The 0.6s winning margin was the third-closest WRC finish ever.
Reigning WRC champ Ogier is sitting this one out as he pursues only a part-time program in 2022, but Evans and Esapekka Lappi join Rovanpera in Toyota’s factory squad. Takamoto Katsuta drives a fourth Yaris for the Japanese manufacturer’s second team.
Gus Greensmith is M-Sport Ford’s front-runner in a Puma Rally1. The Briton, who lies fourth in the WRC standings, is joined by Craig Breen and Adrien Fourmaux, the latter scoring an impressive fifth place in Croatia last year on his top-level debut.
A fourth hybrid Puma will be in the hands of 2019 WRC2 champion Pierre-Louis Loubet for the first time.
Hyundai Motorsport fields the same driver line-up for the third consecutive rally. Thierry Neuville is Rovanpera’s closest challenger in the points after finishing second on the previous round in Sweden.
The Belgian is joined in i20 N Rally1 cars by rising star Oliver Solberg and former champ Ott Tanak, who is hoping for a big upturn after a disappointing start to the season.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Americans Sean Johnston and co-driver Alex Kihurani return to competition in their Sainteloc Junior Team Citroen C3. The duo finished a strong fourth in class in the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally and will be looking for a good result in Croatia to maintain the momentum.
The rally starts in Zagreb on Thursday evening ahead of three days of competition on asphalt which varies from smooth to badly broken and features many tricky crests and jumps. The 20 special stages cover 181.4 miles.
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