Can anyone stop Kalle Rovanpera making it six wins from eight rounds of the 2022 FIA World Rally Championship when the 21-year-old Flying Finn takes on his home event, Rally Finland, this week?
The Toyota Gazoo Racing phenom has a huge, 83-point lead in the WRC title battle, and with a maximum of 30 available from each of the six remaining rounds, he could probably cruise to the crown. But far from holding back, Rovanpera wants what every Finnish rally driver craves almost as much as a championship: victory on the super-fast gravel stages around Jyvaskyla, Aug. 4-7.
Making it even sweeter if he can pull it off, Rovanpera was born in Jyvaskyla and Toyota’s 2022-dominating WRC squad is based there, too.
This will only be Rovanpera’s second Rally Finland start in the WRC’s headlining class, and his fourth overall. Last year, he non-finished after over-correcting on a fast left-hander (on this rally, “fast” describes just about every corner) and damaging his radiator on a gravel mound, but in 2022, such mistakes are pretty much non-existent.
Even running as first car on the road, meaning he’ll be “road sweeping” loose gravel from the stages for the cars behind, the fast and incredibly mature GR Yaris Rally1 driver looks like the one to beat.
“It’s always really exciting to come to Finland,” he says. “For the Finnish drivers, it’s the best event of the season — and an important one, of course.
“But I don’t think it brings more pressure. It’s more of an excitement boost, with high hopes and high feelings before the rally, and you know the atmosphere will be great, so you can always enjoy that.”
Cars frequently top 130mph on rollercoaster roads amid the forests and countless lakes of central Finland, and thanks to the WRC’s all-new hybrid era making the headlining Rally1 cars more powerful than their World Rally Car predecessors, this weekend could deliver the fastest WRC event ever. The rally’s trademark stomach-churning jumps and blind crests mean pace notes must be perfect and delivered with pinpoint accuracy by hard-working co-drivers.
Rain is also predicted to fall at some point over the weekend. A quirk of the fine gravel surface means light rain and damp conditions can make the stages even faster, but more than that and the roads can become treacherously slippery.
“Yes, it looks like it can rain at some point,” Rovanpera says. “Being the first car on the road on Friday, I wouldn’t mind a bit of a damp road — it could be good for us.”
Toyota is undefeated at Rally Finland since the Japanese manufacturer returned to the sport in 2017. Joining Rovanpera in a four-car Yaris attack are last year’s winner Elfyn Evans, development driver Takamoto Katsuta, and Esapekka Lappi.
Lappi was the last Finn to win on home soil in 2017 — the debut year of Toyota’s return – but since then, local celebrations on the “Gravel Grand Prix” have proved elusive. Last year, he finished fourth in a privately-entered Yaris, but his 2022 return to the factory squad on a limited program should see him at the sharp end, and possibly even taking the fight to Rovanpera.
Thursday morning’s official Shakedown test stage hinted that could be the case. Rovanpera’s 1m56.1s run was fastest on the 2.78-mile Rannankyla stage, but Lappi was just 0.5s behind in second place.
Hyundai Motorsport trails Toyota by 87 points in its hunt for the WRC manufacturers’ title and needs strong performances from its hybrid-powered i20 N Rally 1 trio of Thierry Neuville, 2018 and ’19 Rally Finland winner Ott Tanak (then driving for Toyota), and Oliver Solberg.
Estonian Tanak’s third-fastest overall time in the Shakedown, 0.9s off the pace-setting Rovanpera, was a booster for the Hyundai squad. The i20 N has been a match for the Toyotas at times this season, but has proved rather fragile mechanically. Finland’s smooth stages don’t beat up cars in the way events such as Safari Rally Kenya and Rally Italy Sardinia have done in recent weeks, so perhaps Tanak will be able to challenge the Yaris hegemony?
Craig Breen, twice a podium finisher in Finland with Citroen (2016) and Hyundai (2021), now leads M-Sport Ford’s WRC attack. The Irishman is sixth in the 2022 WRC points and looking to put some momentum back into his season after tough events in Kenya and Estonia. He’s joined by Britain’s Gus Greensmith along with French duo Adrien Fourmaux and Pierre-Louis Loubet from M-Sport’s regular roster, while home hero Jari Huttunen completes the five-car Puma Rally1 lineup on his top tier debut.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, reigning champ and current points leader Andreas Mikkelsen, plus his two closest pursuers, Kajetan Kajetanowicz and Yohan Rossel, are all skipping Finland as one of their seven point-scoring events. But that doesn’t mean the class will be short of furious competition, with Finns Emil Lindholm (Toksport Skoda Fabia Evo) and Teemu Suninen (Hyundai i20 N Rally2) set to be flat-out from the start in the quest for home success.
Watch out for Hayden Paddon, too, in the WRC2 dogfight. The New Zealander, overall winner of the 2016 Argentina Rally with Hyundai, is making his first WRC start since 2019 at the wheel of a privately-entered Hyundai. He’s been dialing back into the terrifying speeds and total commitment needed for Finland with some limited pre-event testing and has the pedigree to be at least a WRC2 podium contender.
Rally Finland starts in Jyvaskyla on Thursday evening (Aug. 4) with the short, sharp 2.16-mile Harju stage within the city’s largest park. The intensity level rises with Friday’s nine stages and 77.6 competitive miles, followed by eight stages and 93.4 miles on Saturday. Sunday’s final leg adds four more tests, including Ruuhimaki’s rally-ending, bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage, making a total of 200.46 competitive miles.
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