The World Rally Championship’s youngest-ever world champion opens up on his love for JDM automotive culture and why he would have loved to have competed against his dad, Harri, and Marcus Grönholm during the WRC golden era of the early 2000s

“Hey, sorry I’m late! Our meeting ran over a bit,” says Kalle Rovanperä as he grabs a chair to sit down for this interview ahead of the upcoming Rally Kenya. His accent is heavily accented Finnish - all rolled r’s and prominent up-and-down intonation. It leaves no doubts as to where he’s from.

At 23 years-old, the Finn could easily be part of the landscape at any European university campus, though the Red Bull athlete cap emblazoned with #KR69 branding and the equally-bold Toyota Gazoo Racing polo shirt may see him stick out a tad.

Rovanperä has 11 WRC victories to his name, but has yet to win at home in Finland
© Toyota Gazoo Racing

Yet Rovanperä isn’t your ordinary 23 year-old. Or a university student, for that matter.

He’s a two-time World Rally Champion. In 2022 the Finn became the WRC’s youngest ever title winner at just age 22. In doing so, he broke the late Colin McRae’s record by over five years. A year later - yet again behind the wheel of the formidable Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 - he followed it up with a second consecutive championship.

Rovanperä and co-driver, Jonne Halttunen, could easily have rolled into 2024 looking for a third WRC title with Toyota. Nonetheless, the Finn has opted to run a partial programme for this season.

Alongside a handful of WRC events, Rovanperä will take part in Formula Drift - a series he has enjoyed in Japan since 2023 - with a Toyota GR Corolla. He will also make a switch to sports cars courtesy of four outings in Porsche Carrera Cup Benelux.

“Nowadays, I would say the driving in WRC today is much more straightforward [...] If you look back to the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, guys like my dad and Marcus [Grönholm] were pushing like crazy!”

This year isn’t so much of a holiday before his full-time return to the WRC in 2025. In his own words, he tells “it’s more of a chance to challenge myself as a driver and try some new, interesting things.”

It would be easy to pursue the usual questions about the challenges he faces by switching between disciplines for 2024; whether the interest in sports cars could precipitate a test in Toyota Gazoo Racing’s World Endurance Championship challenger, the GR010 Hypercar, and a future move to circuit racing.

However, David Evans covers this topic in-depth for DirtFish and I don’t want to bore Rovanperä by asking him what he’s already answered.

If you ask anyone working on Toyota’s WRC programme about Rovanperä’s character, they’ll remark on three things - how grounded he is, his intelligence, and his love for rallying and the automotive world in general.

Naturally, then, I have to ask him about how he thinks he would have fared against his dad, Harri, and fellow Finn Marcus Grönholm during what many fans consider to be the WRC’s golden era of the early 2000s.

Rovanperä gets a hug from dad Harri after the first WRC title with Toyota in 2022
Rovanperä gets a hug from dad Harri after the first WRC title with Toyota in 2022
© Toyota Gazoo Racing

From 2001 - 2004, Harri Rovanperä drove alongside Grönholm at Peugeot and was considered to be one of the sport’s loose surface specialists. His sole WRC victory came at the 2001 Rally Sweden.

Meanwhile, Grönholm won two championships with the French outfit in 2000 and 2002. Until the younger Rovanperä’s maiden title win in 2022, Grönholm was the last Finnish driver to claim a WRC title.

“How do I feel I would have gone up against dad and Marcus? That’s a really difficult question!” Rovanperä grins. “I’m confident I could hold out against them, but the driving style has changed a lot since they were driving.”

The cars have, too.

At the turn of the 20th century, WRC machines were much bigger and their 2.0-litre engines produced around 300 bhp. Aerodynamics were less of a factor, too.

“Hearing all the stories about how things were [...] it’s a shame I was born 20 years too late!”

The current Rally1 cars driven by Rovanperä and his contemporaries make up to 500 bhp thanks to their 1.6L turbocharged engines, which are paired with complicated hybrid systems. Grip is also significantly more thanks to the Rally1 machinery’s equally-complex aerodynamics.

“Nowadays, I would say the driving in WRC today is much more straightforward and requires a much sharper method of driving,” explains Rovanperä. “To set a good time now in a Rally1 car, you brake in a straight line; you turn into the corner once to keep it clean, and you exit the corner in a straight line. It feels more like circuit racing at times.

“This cleaner approach allows us to really reach the limits of the cars us drivers have today. What’s more, nowadays we rely a lot on videos to help us learn stages.

“That way, everyone can learn who’s fastest and if you can replicate the braking and turn-in zones along with where to accelerate, it’s likely you can set a quick time from one year to the next.

“Driving from memory is something we definitely do a lot more of than in the past.”

Jonne Halttunen and Rovanperä
The post-rally celebrations of Jonne Halttunen (left) and Rovanperä (right) have endeared them to a younger audience
© Toyota Gazoo Racing

Rovanperä’s reported love for his rallying has by now very much come to the fore. Any hint of the much-fabled laconic Finnish driver has promptly disappeared in favour of an animated individual who is clearly enamoured with the past and present of his sport.

“If you look back to the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, guys like my dad and Marcus were pushing like crazy to reach the limits of their cars, and they were always on the limit.” he continues. “They were driving amazingly back then - there was a Scandinavian Flick for every corner, and it was just flat out everywhere.

“Those cars and times would have definitely suited my driving style, and after hearing all the stories about how things were, how the drivers lived, and generally how people behaved, I think these days were definitely my time,” Rovanperä laughs. “It’s a shame I was born 20 years too late!”

“If you want to attract a wider audience, you need personalities to bring in the not-so-hardcore fans”

Like all forms of modern motorsport, the WRC is driven by the bottom line, and the increasing need for PR-friendliness on the drivers’ behalf to sell more cars has - arguably - come at the detriment of characters in the sport.

If you’re of a similar vintage to me and you cast your mind back to the period Rovanperä has just covered, you’ll remember the epic “Battle of Britain” between McRae and Richard Burns for the 2001 WRC title.

Carlos Sainz and Tommi Mäkinen were titans of the sport, and a “Kankkunen” - named after four-time world champion Juha Kankkunen - was a synonym for a post-rally hangover.

Rovanperä Sr and Grönholm were also part of this scene, with the latter Finn even getting his own “funniest moments” compilation video on YouTube.

Grönholm’s “up in the ass of Timo!” remark from 2004 has become such an integral part of rallying folklore that a handful of years ago, Finland’s Toni’s Hill Brewery gave one of its beers the very same name.

Toyota in 2024 with Rovanperä
It’s all change for Toyota in 2024 with Rovanperä going part-time and the GR Yaris sporting a new black livery
© Toyota Gazoo Racing

Referring back to Rovanperä’s “it’s a shame I was born 20 years too late” comment from earlier, he is arguably the only WRC driver at present who can lay claim to keeping the not-so-serious traditions of his predecessors.

Rovanperä's 2022 title-winning TikTok-style dance won him plenty of fans online. Earlier this year, he and co-driver Jonne Halttunen took their Rally1 GR Yaris to a McDonalds drive-thru after a testing session in Finland. The video is available online.

The pairing also races with the number 69. Because let’s face it, that sort of thing never stops being funny. It doesn’t matter how old you are.

The Rovanperä/Halttunen way of going about things is refreshing to observe. It’s far removed from the sanitised “yes, for sure, the car was very nice to drive today, thank you to my team, #blessed,” behaviour we’ve come to expect from racing drivers in recent times.

“It’s no secret that rallying isn’t as popular as it was back in the day,” reflects Rovanperä. “That doesn’t really matter though in this instance. Any sport can be ultra competitive, but it may not have the right sorts of characters to make it accessible to everyone.

“I love all sorts of cars, but I really love JDM culture. Whenever I am in Japan, it feels to be 30 years ahead of us in Europe”

“If you want to attract a wider audience, you need personalities to bring in the not-so-hardcore fans. They may not be so interested in the history of things or things like regulation changes, but they may want to follow you - and your sport - because of who you are and how you do things. I think that’s fair.”

With a handful of minutes to go before he rushes off to another meeting inside Toyota Gazoo Racing HQ, I ask Rovanperä about his choice of company car from the Japanese carmaker.

vHe looks at the team’s on-site PR, an incredibly helpful and friendly Belgian named Hans De Bauw. The Finn answers with a broad smile.

“I have quite a few Toyotas as you can expect!” Rovanperä laughs. “For my daily car, I have a 2019 Mk5 Toyota Supra J29 which is really cool to look at and really smooth to drive. I also have a Mk4 Supra - an A80. It’s got a lot of power, and it’s a proper, proper JDM car.

Kalle Rovanperä
Kalle Rovanperä will return…
© Toyota Gazoo Racing

“I love all sorts of cars, but I really love JDM culture.” This is now Kalle Rovanperä the car enthusiast in full flow. What was that about Finns being a recalcitrant bunch again?

“Whenever I am in Japan, it feels to be 30 years ahead of us in Europe,” he enthuses. “I really enjoy how people still tune their cars and meet up every night to go driving together. This is something I find fascinating about the culture over there. Then of course drifting originates from Japan, so it all comes together really.”

His colleagues at Toyota Gazoo Racing were right. Kalle Rovanperä is incredibly grounded, very bright, and a proper “car guy” to the very core. He’s also a truly likeable character and someone you could easily sink a few beers with. It’s alarmingly easy to forget that Rovanperä is just 23.

He’s anything but ordinary though.

To see how Kalle is doing on his 2024 adventures, click the yellow words to follow him on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter.

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WRC Rally Funny interviews with Finnish drivers