Kalle Rovanpera not only won Rally New Zealand but also clinched the FIA WRC title, as Sebastien Ogier was P2 in the round and Ott Tanak third.
Ott Tanak reclaimed the top spot at Repco Rally New Zealand as Sébastien Ogier struggled through Friday’s final test with a damaged rear spoiler. Just 7.2sec blanketed the leading four drivers after 158.56km of frantic action on what was the longest leg of this year’s FIA World Rally Championship so far.
Tanak was initially dominant in his Hyundai i20 N and opened up a slender advantage as heavy downpours plagued the morning’s stages on gravel roads in the Waikato Region. When the rain clouds briefly parted ahead of the second pass of Whaanga Coast, however, the Estonian driver was hampered by an early road position and struggled for traction as the surface dried and became loose.
He was passed by Toyota Gazoo Racing star Elfyn Evans as well as the Welshman’s part-time colleague Ogier who, aided by a lower starting position, climbed from fifth to first overall after outpacing the entire field by 8.2sec while managing his soft compound Pirelli rubber to perfection.
Wet weather returned for the closing two speed tests and Ogier soon came unstuck – brushing a tree branch with the rear end of his Yaris which ripped the upper half of the spoiler from the car. That enabled Tänak to crank up the pressure and he stormed back in front with a stage win on the final test as Ogier struggled with reduced rear aero, ending 6.7sec adrift of the lead. Evans’ consistency was rewarded and he swooped into the runner-up spot – trailing the leader by just two-tenths of a second.
Road-opening duties actually played to Kalle Rovanperä’s advantage as the Toyota hotshot avoided the worst of a heavy shower on SS6. The Finn finished the day just 0.5sec behind Ogier in fourth overall but, unless he can overhaul Tanak within the next two days, will not be able to seal the drivers’ title this week.
M-Sport Ford’s pair of Pumas were initially dominant as Craig Breen and Gus Greensmith locked out the top-two after the opener. Things quickly turned sour, however, when Breen retired after sliding down a banking on the same corner which caught out Colin McRae in 2002. Greensmith was left flying the flag for the British squad and he coped admirably to end the day 36.6sec back from Rovanperä in fifth.
Thierry Neuville’s morning was plagued by two costly spins but his luck improved as the day wore on. A softer suspension set-up heralded more confidence in his i20 and by close of play the EKO Acropolis Rally Greece winner had moved to within 1.8sec of Greensmith. Oliver Solberg and Takamoto Katsuta were seventh and eight respectively ahead of WRC2 leader Hayden Paddon and Puma privateer Lorenzo Bertelli.
Kalle Rovanpera is closing in on his maiden FIA World Rally Championship title after taking the Repco Rally New Zealand field by storm on Saturday. A 29.0sec lead heading into Sunday’s final leg was the best 22nd birthday present the Toyota Gazoo racing star could have asked for after six technical stages on gravel roads north of Auckland.
The icing on the cake was a 46.4sec buffer over his main title challenger Ott Tanak, who finished the day in third after being lumbered with 15 seconds worth of time penalties. Rovanpera himself was handed a five-second penalty before the day had even started for his own hybrid rule breach, but the Finn carved through the pack on muddy roads to seize the top spot by mid-leg service before taking a brace of stage wins in the afternoon.
Tanak initially stayed within touching distance of his rival despite being unhappy with the feeling aboard his Hyundai i20 N but slipped out of touch when he received an additional 10sec sanction for a second hybrid breach. Event stewards ruled the energy released from Tanak’s car during hybrid boosts on SS7 exceeded the maximum value allowed for that stage, with Hyundai team manager Pablo Marcus explaining the mistake was simply due to an error made by engineers when setting the hybrid unit’s parameters.
If the top-three positions remain as they are, fourth-fastest on Sunday afternoon’s bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage will be enough to crown Rovanpera as the youngest-ever WRC champion. Ogier’s afternoon didn’t go without drama. He incurred a 10sec penalty for arriving late to SS12 and was keen to stay in line for a solid manufacturers’ points haul after team-mate Elfyn Evans retired with roll cage damage sustained during an off on the first pass of Puhoi.
Almost one minute back from the podium was Thierry Neuville who, along with i20 partner Oliver Solberg, also picked up time penalties for hybrid rule breaches. The Belgian driver lost third gear during the morning loop but arrived back to service 1min 53.5sec clear of fifth-placed Solberg.
Solberg’s top-five position came at the expense of Toyota youngster Takamoto Katsuta, who slid off the road on a tight left-hander in the penultimate stage. The 21-year-old was relieved not to be joining Katsuta on the retirements list, having limped through three stages with a misfire.
Ford Puma driver Gus Greensmith had been running fifth but was left out of contention with a spectacular roll on SS10. After assessing the damage, Greensmith’s M-Sport Ford squad confirmed he will not restart on Sunday. Such was the rate of attrition that WRC2 leader Hayden Paddon rounded off the top-six in a Rally2-specification Hyundai. The Kiwi had 27.3sec in hand over Puma privateer Lorenzo Bertelli, while Kajetan Kajetanowicz, Shane Vangisbergen and Harry Bates completed the top 10.
Finnish wunderkind Kalle Rovanpera obliterated the FIA World Rally Championship record books after sealing a historic title with victory at Repco Rally New Zealand. At 22 years and one day old, the Toyota Gazoo Racing driver becomes the youngest driver in the history of the sport to lift the crown – sweeping aside the record previously held by Colin McRae, who won in 1995 aged 27 years and 89 days.
Rovanpera, who is co-driven by Jonne Halttunen, required seven more points than Hyundai i20 N rival Ott Tanak to seal the deal at this Auckland-based 11th round. With a hefty lead already earned on Saturday, he remained unchallenged over Sunday’s final four gravel tests and emerged from the rally-ending Wolf Power Stage having done more than enough – heading a GR Yaris 1-2 by 34.6sec ahead of eight-time world champion Sébastien Ogier as a frustrated Tanak settled for third almost 50sec behind.
This season – only Rovanpera’s third in the sport’s top-flight – proved to be nothing short of extraordinary. After a shaky start at the season-opening Rallye Monte-Carlo, the Finn romped to a hat-trick of successive wins in Sweden, Croatia and Portugal. Road-opening duties at Rally Italia Sardegna left Rovanperä down in fifth but he was soon back to winning ways, triumphing in Kenya and Estonia before further extending his advantage with second overall on home soil.
The youngster’s form then took a brief downturn when he spectacularly rolled on the opening day of Ypres Rally Belgium. He also finished a lowly 15th in Greece due to another off-road excursion. Victory in New Zealand on just his 30th start at the WRC’s elite level leaves Rovanpera with an unassailable 64-point lead over Tänak with two rounds to spare. An emotional Jari-Matti Latvala – team principal of Toyota Gazoo Racing – stressed the importance of having a Finnish champion after a 20-year drought since Marcus Grönholm took the title in 2002.
Fourth place in the rally went to Hyundai pilot Thierry Neuville, whose issues included a faulty gearbox on Saturday. He trailed Tänak by 1min 10.3sec but led Oliver Solberg, also driving an i20, by a hefty margin after the young Swede dropped time with a Saturday misfire. New Zealand’s technical stages took no prisoners with Yaris pairing Elfyn Evans and Takamoto Katsuta plus M-Sport Ford Puma youngster Gus Greensmith all failing to restart on Sunday due to accident damage.
The drama enabled home hero Hayden Paddon to finish sixth overall as well as taking his Rally2-specification Hyundai to WRC2 glory. Puma privateer Lorenzo Bertelli finished seventh while Kajetan Kajetanowicz, Shane Vangisbergen and Harry Bates completed the leaderboard.
Here’s WRC Rally New Zealand results: https://www.wrc.com/en/wrcplus/live-timing/