WRC points leader Rovanpera targets Safari Rally conquest

His maturity belies his age. At just 21 and primed to become the youngest ever world rally champion, Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Kalle Rovanpera’s cool, calm and collected demeanour camouflages his zest and self-belief.

He already has three wins tucked under his belt in the 2022 World Rally Championships, and on different surfaces – from the snow of Sweden to the asphalt of Croatia and gravel of Portugal.

Rovanpera is on 120 points, 55 ahead of closest challenger, Hyundai’s Belgian Thierry Neuville.

A win in the WRC Safari Rally this week will catapult the youngster from Finland into serious contention for the world title, especially with semi-retired French veterans – nine-time champion Sebastien Loeb and eight-time winner Sebastien Ogier – not attacking the full circuit.

But the Sebastiens couldn’t resist the Safari allure and are both in Naivasha, Ogier as defending champion for Toyota and Loeb making a comeback in a Ford Puma after finishing fifth for Citroen in 2002, the last time the Safari Rally was on the World Rally Championship radar before re-emerging last year.

Does the young Kalle feel any pressure?

Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Kalle Rovanpera during his interview with NMG Sports Editor Elias Makori in Naivasha on June 19, 2022./Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

He says he doesn’t, and he looked that way when I was privileged to sit beside him for an afternoon drive as he test-drove Limited Edition Toyota GR Hilux Safari Limited Edition from his lakeside Naivasha hotel to Oserian.

Only 15 such cars were manufactured to celebrate the Safari Rally’s return to the WRC, and they all sold out, perhaps thanks to their strength, stability and comfort.

“I don’t feel so much pressure,” he told me upon return to the team hotel after the Sunday afternoon excursion.

“But, of course, after last year’s disappointment we want to do a really good job. This is a rally where we want to get some good result… for sure that’s our plan this year.”

Last year, Kalle’s Yaris was stuck in a rut on Day Two’s final stage, handing him a dusty and rude welcome to Kenya where his father Harri Rovanpera finished second in the 2002 Safari, driving a Peugeot 206, co-driven by Risto Peitilainen.

Does he get some tips on the Kenyan conditions from his dad?

“Of course the rally is quite different today from his time,” he responds in our Fathers’ Day chat, matter-of-factly, like a man charting his own course.

“And of course he had many fans here… I’m also getting more fans here. It’s a nice rally, and the conditions are really special. It’s something we don’t see in any other rally.

“It’s a tough event. You need to survive and be consistent also, so it’s not an easy week!”

Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Kalle Rovanpera during his interview with NMG Sports Editor Elias Makori in Naivasha on June 19, 2022./Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

During the drive from Naivasha to Oserian, Kalle pushed the Hilux’s speedometer past 150 kilometres per hour, but you wouldn’t realise it given his calmness behind the wheel.

It’s not often you cruise with the World Rally Championship points leader on Kenyan roads, I thought to myself as we sped past Matteo’s Italian Restaurant and Bar on Moi South Road.

As Kalle downshifted gears while approaching each speed bump, he seemed bothered.

“There are too many speed bumps here,” he observed.

“Yeah, due to the large number of people here and the markets… they stop people from speeding,” I justified.

Kalle is obviously excited to be back to Kenya, and couldn’t hold back the questions.

“What are those?” he asked, pointing at the green houses as we breezed past Longonot Flower Farm.

“Those are flower farms,” I educated him.

“Naivasha is famous for flower farming and produces the roses you buy over there in Europe,” I added.

Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Kalle Rovanpera during his interview with NMG Sports Editor Elias Makori in Naivasha on June 19, 2022./Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

Rovanpera Junior has so far won five of his 44 WRC attempts, winning 55 stages in all with four retirements blotting his fledgling career.

He hopes to conquer the Safari, or at least get a podium like Rovanpera Senior did some 20 years ago when Kalle was just six months old.

“It’s a good feeling to be back here. Last year was a very tough year,” he said after the relaxing drive-around courtesy of Toyota Kenya’s Sales and Product Trainer Sukhjiv Kular and Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team’s Hans De Bauw.

“Today we had a little bit of free time to see some animals and having a bit of relaxation.”

Kalle is clearly impressed by the Limited Edition Hilux.

“It was quite interesting driving the GR Hilux… It’s the first time for me to drive a car like this one. The guys have done a great job!

“The car is good to drive even on the really tough conditions. The car was driving well today and it’s really comfortable. We were on some tough terrain and it was taking it well.”

Music to the ears of Sukhjiv who was heavily involved in putting together the special Hilux.

Kalle will be hoping that the Yaris handles equally well when the Safari rolls off the Kenyatta International Convention Centre ramp this Thursday.

“We really couldn’t do anything so special with the testing as time was really limited for us, but the guys have been getting the car and the set-up better all the time and so, hopefully, we shall have a fast and reliable car, which I’m sure we have,” he noted.

This week’s Safari Rally marks the first time that the hybrid rally cars (that boast a cocktail of electric and fuel powered engines) will be competing on African soil after having been introduced on the WRC circuit just this year.

In the previous gravel sections in Portugal and Italy, the drivers complained of too much heat and dust seeping into the cockpit.

Kalle says at times temperatures would rise as high as 60 degrees centigrade in the cars and that they have to hydrate well.

“We had some dust issues in the previous rallies, and here (in Kenya) to if it will be dry, it will be one tough thing to manage but, hopefully, we shall manage it well.”

Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Kalle Rovanpera (right) during his interview with NMG Sports Editor Elias Makori in Naivasha on June 19, 2022./Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

His message to his to Kenyan fans? “I just hope everyone has a really nice rally weekend and hopefully you will cheer us on the stages and at home from the TV and, hopefully, we will make a good result for you.”

Sadly, Kalle will not afford time to visit Kenya’s world famous national parks and game reserves… “Not now… we are quite busy,” he says as I let him melt into his room to plan for the week ahead.

As we part, I notice he’s watching the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix on his mobile fun.

Kalle’s certainly got a thing for speed and thrills!

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