Top Performer - Kalle Rovanpera and Jonne Halttunen
This year Kalle Rovanpera and Jonne Halttunen have put a strong case forward for best double act in world motorsport. This was only enhanced after storming to a memorable sixth win of 2022 at Rally New Zealand to seal a maiden world title.
Rovanpera produced yet another mesmerising performance in challenging wet conditions to secure a comfortable 34.6s victory over Toyota team-mate and outgoing world champion Sebastien Ogier, in what was a poignant handing over of the title baton.
There was plenty of symmetry in this victory compared to Rovanpera's other triumphs in Croatia, Portugal, Kenya and Estonia, where he has started first on the road. The Finn managed to limit the damage of opening the road on Friday to end the day only 7.2s shy of the lead thanks to his prowess in the wet. It must be said that he was fortunate when the rain arrived, as had it stayed dry he could have found himself further behind.
Come Saturday he attacked in the wet and was simply untouchable before going on to win the rally and claim title in style with a powerstage, a day after his 22nd birthday. It was a powerstage win that wasn’t required yet duly delivered with aplomb, in what has become a Rovanpera tradition. It is this composure beyond his years that will perhaps frighten his rivals just as much as his speed.
This victory will most likely rank among his best yet given what was at stake. Despite the enormity of winning maiden world title, the 22-year-old was his usual cool, calm and collected self throughout the weekend as he rewrote history by becoming the WRC’s youngest ever world champion. The previous benchmark was set by none other than the late Colin McRae when he won the title in 1995 at the age of 27.
It is a feat that is likely to never be beaten. Although, Rovanpera has now changed the game, as he is proof that younger drivers can be successful, blowing the myth that age and experience are required to be champion. Similar to how Max Verstappen reset the rules for Formula 1 coming in as a precocious teenager, Rovanpera’s success may now have opened a similar door for the WRC.
Honourable mentions: Ott Tanak, Sebastien Ogier, Shane van Gisbergen
Ott Tanak once again produced a valiant drive while seemingly fighting with one hand behind his back. The Hyundai driver was hit 15 seconds of time penalties through no fault of his own, as a human error resulted in all three i20 Ns breaching hybrid boost regulations. Had the 2019 world champion avoided the sanctions on Saturday, he would have been leading the rally heading into Saturday afternoon.
Tanak once again showed his class by scoring four stages wins across the rally. His display on Friday, the most impressive which resulted in him ending the with a 0.2s lead over Evans, before the penalties and differential issue thwarted his hopes.
The 2019 world champion has given Rovanpera something to think about in the second half of the season thanks to impressive victories in Sardinia, Finland and Belgium and was gracious in title defeat.
“We have had a far from good weekend but this weekend Toyota and Kalle has been very strong, they have beaten everybody fair and square, no question," said Tanak. “Congratulations to Harri [Rovanpera], he has done a great job as a father to raise up such a great kid, he should be very proud of him.”
Returning to the WRC for the first time since June's Safari Rally Kenya, Sebastien Ogier was right on the pace. The eight-time world champion briefly led on Friday before losing his GR Yaris’ rear wing to a tree branch.
The outgoing world champion played the perfect wingman for Rovanpera by keeping the Finn’s title rival in third, allowing the latter to seal a maiden world title. A second podium of the season for Ogier will prove to be valuable points for Toyota as it seeks to wrap up back-to-back manufacturers’ titles.
Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen captured many new fans for his fun loving approach to his WRC debut, but the New Zealander also proved he has the skills to make a permanent career change to rallying. The New Zealander, competing in WRC2, was able at times to match and beat class title contender Kajetan Kajetanowicz.
A front right puncture sustained on his Skoda Fabia on Saturday dented his hopes, but he still went on to steal a remarkable third in class and ninth overall on debut.
Team of the Week: Toyota Gazoo Racing
It was pertinent that Rovanpera was quick to praise his team for building him a “rocket” this year following his world championship success. Toyota once again showed that it has produced the best Rally1 car this season with a 1-2 at Rally New Zealand.
Toyota had been under a bit pressure heading into New Zealand after a difficult Acropolis Rally Greece, where sixth for Takamoto Katsuta was the team’s best result. Elfyn Evans retired from fourth due to a turbo issue, Esapekka Lappi was fighting for the lead when a fuel pressure issue emerged and Rovanpera suffered an uncharacteristic crash.
“Acropolis was very disappointing for us in many ways but we have out that to one side and we know why things went wrong and we just need to improve in those type of hard surface events for next year," said Toyota boss Jari-Matti Latvala ahead of Rally New Zealand.
"But we know this kind of event in New Zealand our car is strong on these fast flowing roads. We are feeling confident and our drivers are really hungry to get good results. I would say everyone is sharper than usual.
“I don’t feel pressure but our position in both championships is still good but we need to be realistic we need a decent result here and if we don’t do that here then we might feel the pressure in Spain.”
However, Toyota bounced back strongly and they could have bagged even more points and a potential podium lockout had Evans not crashed out of the lead on Stage 9.
With Hyundai occupying third through fifth, courtesy of Tanak, Thierry Neuville and Oliver Solberg, Toyota extended its advantage over the South Korean marque in the manufacturers’ title race to 81 points with two rounds remaining.
“I’m also really proud of the team, that we could bounce back after the difficult weekend in Greece and score a 1-2 finish here in New Zealand,” said Latvala. "That is really helping us in the manufacturers’ championship and this will now be our focus moving onwards to Spain.”
Moments of Heartbreak
M-Sport’s Craig Breen started Rally New Zealand with speed and intent as the Irishman raced into the rally lead on Friday morning. However, Stage 5 brought that charge to a firm halt when he ran off the road at the same corner that caught out Colin McRae in 2002.
Fans were able to help retrieve the car from sliding down an embankment but 18 minutes were dropped. A clutch failure put him out for the day. Breen showed what could have been by scoring two stage wins on Saturday.
The pain for M-Sport was worsened when Gus Greensmith, who claimed only his second career stage win on Stage 2, crashed out of sixth on Saturday. The violent crash forced the cancellation of Stage 10. Luckily, both Greensmith and co-driver Jonas Andersson emerged unscathed.
Toyota’s Elfyn Evans has been enjoying Rally New Zealand having moved into the rally lead on Saturday morning. However, the victory drought continued after the Welshman lost control on Stage 9 and rolled his GR Yaris. Despite frantic roadside repairs, that included Evans filling up his camel bag from a nearby puddle to help refill the car’s radiator, roll cage damage ended his rally.
It was double disappointment for Toyota when Takamoto Katsuta ended his run of finishing every rally in the points when he slid off the road in Stage 12.
Thierry Neuville can count himself very lucky not to see his rally end when he skirted with the a ditch on Sunday. This was a third lucky escape for the Belgian after suffering two spins on Friday.
Sebastien Ogier was fortunate a brush with the trees only resulted in a loss of his rear wing on Stage 6, although the Frenchman was unaware he had lost a vital piece of aero.
When it comes to jumps it will take a while for Hyundai's Oliver Solberg to forget this one on Stage 15.
The usually reserved Rovanpera and Halttunen afforded themselves a victory dance after claiming the title, but we are not sure it will catch on though.