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The petrolhead obsession that drives WRC champion Rovanpera

When it comes to motorsport petrolheads, Kalle Rovanpera is a frontrunner. This year the World Rally champion will tackle three disciplines of motorsport, all fuelled by his unwavering love of all things four wheels

Kalle Rovanperä, Toyota

Rallying, circuit racing, drifting and starring in a hip-hop video are all activities in Kalle Rovanpera’s 2024 ‘gap year’ calendar. It’s fair to say life is pretty good at the moment for the reigning two-time World Rally champion, who has rewritten the record books.

The common denominator that links all of these pursuits together, even his brief dalliance into the world of Finnish hip-hop, is an unbridled passion for cars. If a search was conducted to find the biggest petrolhead currently competing in global motorsport, then Rovanpera has to enter the conversation.

“I’m sure out all of the rally drivers, I am most into cars that are not rally cars, you know like road cars and racing cars,” the Toyota WRC driver says in a special edition of Autosport’s Gravel Notes podcast.

“I just enjoy cars a lot. I would say my main hobby is to build cars, and of course I don’t have the time and the skills to make the cars myself, but I really enjoy thinking about the spec when I get a new car myself, like what kind of wheels I want and all the small details.

“When I see the car when it is ready, it is one of the biggest joys I can get. I love road cars so much. I love how they look, and I love the way you can express yourself with cars.”

Rovanpera has taken this freedom of expression to a new level this year by starring as a welder-turned-driver in a hip-hop video for the ‘Rallikansa’ track - which translates to ‘Rally Crowd’ - by award winning Finnish artists JVG. It’s a song that has been streamed more than four million times on Spotify.

Rovanpera's partial WRC campaign this year is allowing him to enjoy his wider passion for cars

Rovanpera's partial WRC campaign this year is allowing him to enjoy his wider passion for cars

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

But it’s this passion for cars that goes some way to explain why Rovanpera has put together a petrolhead’s paradise of a year, after deciding to conduct a part campaign in the WRC “to recharge his batteries”. A spot of rallying combined with a venture into circuit racing while also indulging his love of drifting, is very appealing to the 23-year-old.

It’s perhaps not surprising that one the brightest talents to hit the WRC stages in recent years has a love affair with all things four wheels. Since he was aged seven, the son of WRC rally winner Harri Rovanpera has been driving a vehicle of some sort. And it’s this incredibly early start to driving that has helped him collect WRC records for fun.

After smashing the late Colin McRae’s youngest ever world champion record by five years and 88 days in 2022, Rovanpera joined an elite group of WRC legends Juha Kankkunen (1986-87), Miki Biasion (1988-89), Tommi Makinen (1996-1999), Sebastien Loeb (2004-2012) and Sebastien Ogier (2013-18, 2020-21) to successfully defend their crown last year.

"How it started was all about fun and this year I have decided to do a few more fun events and just go driving with my friends"
Kalle Rovanpera

Growing up as the son of a WRC driver will certainly feed this passion. That point is made emphatically when Rovanpera recalls his first rally memory, one that would impress upon anybody with a love for cars.

“I think my first rally memory has to be from a Rally Finland test where my dad was driving, and if I remember rightly, it was probably a Peugeot 307 test for him in maybe 2003 or 2004,” he explains. “I remember it really well because I was actually driving with him on the stage.

“My cousin was co-driving with him, but I was so small I was actually sitting on my dad’s lap. Then we went on the stage, and of course he was not driving full speed. I was there and holding the steering wheel. I remember some small things from it and have seen some photos.

“There is quite a funny story about that. The whole day I was asking my dad to do a handbrake turn at the place where they turn the car around. We got to the point, and I said, ‘let’s do a handbrake’. And of course he needed to steer while pulling the handbrake, so he was not holding me, and I hit my head on the steering wheel. I just turned around a gave him the thumbs up, and said ‘let’s go again’.”

Special relationship with Toyoda has enabled Rovanpera to go drifting this year

Special relationship with Toyoda has enabled Rovanpera to go drifting this year

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

It seems Rovanpera Jr was destined to be wrestling rally machines through the world’s toughest roads. But, when you peel back the layers, rallying and being a factory WRC driver is just one part of this obsession. For now, it’s the day job.

Rallying is supplemented by Rovanpera’s extracurricular automotive activities that have been allowed to expand by being a factory Toyota driver, having formed a relationship with the Japanese manufacturer’s automobile-obsessive chairman Akio Toyoda. This has quenched the 12-time WRC rally winner’s thirst for drifting even more, with Rovanpera jumping behind the wheel of Toyota Corolla and Supra drift cars, competing across Europe in the Drift Masters European Championship and the popular Formula Drift in Japan.

Drifting is widely regarded as a bit of an acquired taste when it comes to motorsport, so how did this obsession start and why does it make Rovanpera tick?

“When I was younger, I mentioned that I wanted to have a go at drifting,” he says. “I knew that I would like it and I was following the sport a bit and I was excited to try some cars.

“I bought my second road car, which was an S13 Nissan, and with really small modifications you can drift these cars a bit. I went drifting a few times with that and then I had the chance to try a pro drift car. I did some laps without any practice and it went really well and after that I was like, ‘I need to do this more.’

“For sure, it is a strange sport in some ways because in a few years it has been evolving a lot. The competition in drifting has gone so high. The cars are proper race cars, they are really fast. Many people think that you don’t have grip because you want to slide, but the cars are as gripped up as much as possible. We have so much grip in the cars that it is not easy to drive. It is cool when you make it work.

“You need to be on it, as you are pushing the car and the tyre all of the time. You need to be pushing the limit of the grip a lot and, as the car has so much grip, it is trying to straighten all of the time. If you can make it work, it is fun.

“How it started was all about fun and this year I have decided to do a few more fun events and just go driving with my friends. When you are just banging doors, that is the most fun you can do with the car.”

Rovanpera will have a special road-going Yaris named after him

Rovanpera will have a special road-going Yaris named after him

To further inflate his car culture obsession, this year Toyota has created limited edition bespoke road-going ‘Kalle Rovanpera’ and ‘Sebastien Ogier’ editions of the GR Yaris that the drivers have been actively involved in creating. No doubt one of these will soon make its way into Rovanpera’s growing car collection, which includes a prized 1987 BMW M3 E30 - Tour De Corse edition.

“Akio has quite a similar mindset [to me] and he enjoys cars a lot - this is quite nice to see from a big boss like this,” he adds. “To be involved from the first steps of the car and decide the settings and the small details that you can choose yourself, it is something really amazing and really cool. I have to thank Toyota and Akio for this project because they are really passionate about these kind of things. I think the cars will be quite rare.”

But this weekend Rovanpera, who has already tasted victory in the WRC’s famous Safari Rally Kenya in March, will take his love of cars to uncharted waters – circuit racing. Already a drift king and rally stage-winning master, the next challenge is to race in the Porsche Carrera Cup Benelux at Zandvoort – the home of Formula 1's Dutch Grand Prix.

"I’m really excited for my first time on the circuit and have that new challenge. It is new and interesting and that is why I have the motivation to do it"
Kalle Rovanpera

Rovanpera has teamed up with Red Ant Racing, managed by veteran Le Mans 24 Hours racer Marc Goossens, to contest four of the six rounds. It’s certainly a world away from hauling a GR Yaris through the Kenyan sand, a Finnish forest or the Acropolis’ unforgiving rocky terrain.

Taming the smooth circuit asphalt in a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car is just another one of Rovanpera’s fun challenges in his eyes. Such is his talent, if Rovanpera can transfer a portion of his skills from rallying and drifting, he will be in the thick of the action.

“I’m really excited for my first time on the circuit and have that new challenge, which will be really difficult - but that is the point of it,” he says. “It is new and interesting and that is why I have the motivation to do it and see how it goes.

“The first test I did went well and I think my lap times were on an OK level. Of course, it will be a long process to get to the level I want to be. It is like any motorsport - you need the kilometres.

Rovanpera is also making his circuit racing debut this year in a Porsche

Rovanpera is also making his circuit racing debut this year in a Porsche

“It is really cool, and the team is motivated to do well. Guys like Marc [Goossens] have so much experience and I think we will have a nice programme. The plan is to introduce me to racing and see how it works, and of course we are all motivated to have good results. It is not easy to know where I will be, but of course every time you race you try to do your best.”

When you look at Rovanpera’s calendar you could be forgiven for thinking that it looks rather packed for someone wanting to recharge the batteries. But for Rovanpera – one of motorsport’s true petrolheads - it’s quite the opposite. This is how he relaxes and enjoys life.

“I can feel it already that this year is doing a lot of good for me,” he says. “I can feel that I can relieve the stress that you normally have doing the full year when you are fighting for the championship.”

Listen below to the full candid interview with Rovanpera, where the Finn reveals his WRC dream team, discusses the thinking behind his famous stage end quotes, his title-winning dance routines and how he frightened Formula 1 stars Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard.

Rovanpera is feeling the benefits of not being involved in a WRC title fight this season

Rovanpera is feeling the benefits of not being involved in a WRC title fight this season

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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