Kalle Rovanpera wins WRC Safari Rally

Kalle Rovanpera celebrates with his navigator Jonne Haltunnen

Kalle Rovanpera (right) celebrates with his navigator Jonne Haltunnen after winning WRC Safari Rally in Naivasha on March 31, 2024.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The 24-year-old is regarded one of the most talented racers of all time on gravel, snow and asphalt
  • Rovanpera won the WRC Safari Rally by one minute and 37.8 seconds ahead of his Toyota Gazoo team mate Takamoto Katsuta of Japan
  • Toyota lead Hyundai by four points in the manufacturers’ championship

Kalle Rovanpera of Finland and his navigator Jonne Haltunen mastered tough conditions which decimated the contestants in Naivasha to win the World Rally Championship Safari for the second time.

The 24-year-old, regarded one of the most talented racers of all time on gravel, snow and asphalt, won the third round of the World Rally Championship series by one minute and 37.8 seconds ahead of his Toyota Gazoo team mate Takamoto Katsuta of Japan, and his Irish navigator Aaron Johnstone.

Frenchman Adrien Fourmaux and his navigator, fellow Frenchman Alexandre Coria, gave Ford its first podium in 23 years after they finished third some two minutes and 25.1 seconds behind.

“It’s always special to win here,” Rovanperä said afterwards, beaming from ear to ear after being presented the winner’s trophy by President William Ruto at the Hells Gate podium finish.

“Also, a legendary event for Toyota. We’ve always been so good here and that’s continuing. Like they say in Africa, ‘the car in front is always a Toyota,” the  double world champion who is competing in selected events only this season before a full return next year, said.

Rovanpera had been two minutes and eight seconds clear on Saturday night and was under no pressure, in one of the most demanding races on the rally calendar, through Sunday’s final leg on both sides of Lake Naivasha.

Fourmaux was happy with his performance.

“I'm so so pleased. But I have to congratulate the team, there were no issues with the car all weekend. This is for them, they deserve it," said Fourmaux.

Rovanpera achieved his second victory in Kenya since 2021 with so much ease when everybody else mourned. Toyota lead Hyundai by four points in the manufacturers’ championship.

The next round is in Croatia, on asphalt, from April 18-21.

But who is Rovanpera? On October 2, 2017, one day after his 17th birthday, Rovanperä passed his driving test, and received a licence to legally drive on open roads yet he had 12 years of high level driving experience under his belt. He could spin a top rally car at 200kph since age nine without a problem.

Three weeks later, he joined M-Sport Team at Rally GB, where he began his partnership with co-driver Halttunen. In the final rally of the season in Australia, Rovanperä became the youngest driver to win a round in the WRC2. 

On Sunday, Rovanpera became the youngest double WRC Safari Rally champion. He is bound to win very many world titles before he turns 30. But there is one race he must compete in and complete--completing his compulsory military service in the Finnish military.

Kalle Rovanpera, navigated by Jonne Halttunen on a Toyota Yaris

Kalle Rovanpera, navigated by Jonne Halttunen on a Toyota Yaris followed closely by the WRC live chopper competes in Malewa stage of the WRC Safari Rally on March 31,2024. 

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

After serving for only 10 days, Rovanpera in October of 2019, recused himself to join the Toyota Gazoo Racing world championship team.

But he must return to complete his military service before he turns 30.

“An opportunity like this comes your way only once in a lifetime. I can always go back to school,” he was quoted saying in an earlier media interview.

Rovanpera has missed so much of his childhood that he has taken time off this year to try and capture some of the moments he missed although he is still involved in a limited rallying programme, drifting and generally being a child again. This is the disadvantage of starting so young that Rovanperä has had to delay his further education, something he feels that he must also do.

Just like triple world F1 champion Max Verstappen who was mentored by his father Jos, spending hours putting in practice laps, Rovanperä grew up power sliding over gravel, feathering the throttle under the watchful eyes of his father Harri Rovanepera, second place finisher in 2002 WRC Safari Rally in a Peugeot 206 WRC.

Only three drivers can be considered to have been the depth of talent possessed by Rovanpera--Colin McRae, the youngest WRC world champion in 1995 who was 27 at the time.

The others are Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier who, however, didn't win their debut world title until they were 30 and 29 years, respectively.

In 2020, Rovanperä made his debut in the top tier of World Rally with Toyota, immediately setting new records: youngest WRC driver and, in just his second event in Sweden, the youngest driver to stand on the podium in WRC history – at 19 years and 139 days.

It came in the midst of a very strong field of professionals who never overawed him which included team-mates with world champion Ogier and rally-winner Elfyn Evans. World champion then Ott Tänak, Thierry Neuville and a third Hyundai shared by the legendary Loeb and Dani Sordo. But the season was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic which only delayed the star of Rovanpera to shine brighter, but just.

In 2018, Škoda signed Rovanperä for a factory drive in WRC2 with Halttunen at his side. It was a tough rookie season as Rovanperä fine-tuned his craft against experienced pros like Jan.

In 2023, Rovanperä contested four of the six rounds of the DMEC – namely the rounds in Sweden, Finland, Germany and Poland. He'll be using the Toyota Supra A90 at these events, and be supported by friends and family who will work with him in preparation of the car.

Rally drivers need to be quick, and they need to understand the vehicle, read the surface and know the route layout from recceing with the co-driver. Like an F1 driver, they need to give accurate feedback to help the team's mechanics set up the car.


"He was also my first teacher. He taught me that the car had a steering wheel, an accelerator and a clutch, and then told me to get on with it," says Rovanperä. As well as mentoring Kalle, he brought in friends, such as his former co-driver Risto Pietiläinen, to help.

Those slippery Finnish roads combined with that cool under pressure are key ingredients for producing great drivers, such as F1 World Champions Kimi Raïkkönen, Mika Häkkinen and Keke Rosberg. In the world of rallying, the list is much longer: Marcus Grönholm, Tommi Mäkinen, Juha Kankkunen and more.

Growing up in Puuppola, just outside Rally Finland's host city of Jyväskylä, Rovanperä was spotted early, initially in 2009, when a YouTube clip featuring the gifted eight-year-old racing a Toyota Starlet through snowy forests went viral in the WRC paddock.

Puuppola itself is a hotbed of rallying talent and home to Tommi Mäkinen, who signed Rovanperä to Toyota Gazoo Racing, and Timo Jouhki – the legendary driver managerwho masterminded the careers of Mäkinen, Kankkunen and one Harri Rovanperä. He's managed Kalle Rovanperä since he turned 16.

Aged 12, Rovanperä was ready to race, but in Europe, you need a driving licence before you can go rallying. Everywhere, that is, except Latvia, where he started racing in rally sprints, with Risto taking the wheel of the Škoda Fabia S2000 to drive between stages.

At 15, Rovanperä was crowned R2 champion in Latvia. The following year, equipped with a more powerful Škoda Fabia R5, he became the world's youngest-ever national rally champion, retaining the title in 2017. That year he also raced in the Italian Championship and won two rallies in the Finnish Championship.

Following in the footsteps of Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier is no bad way for a young Frenchman to break into WRC. This is exactly the route taken by Adrien Fourmaux as he embarked on France’s renowned Rallye Jeunes talent-spotting scheme in 2016.

The year after his Rallye Jeunes experience came Adrien’s maiden season of competitive racing. The campaign ended with a podium result to celebrate as he steered his Ford Fiesta R2 to third place in the French junior championship. Adrien moved two steps up the podium in 2018 with a string of dominant performances throughout that year’s French junior championship. Winning all five rounds of the championship saw him given the keys to a WRC-2 drive for the 2019 season. On his debut in Monte Carlo, he finished second in his category and 10th overall before scoring a third-place finish in Great Britain.

He was back on the podium in 2020, taking his M-Sport Ford’s Fiesta Rally2 to third place overall in the WRC-2 championship. There was also a win to celebrate at San Marino’s Rallylegend race on his debut in a full WRC-spec car.

More encouraging results followed in 2021 alongside experienced co-driver, Renaud Jamoul, before Adrien formed a new partnership with Alexandre Coria for his first full-time season with M-Sport in 2022.

For the 2023 season, Adrien headed up M-Sport's Rally2 squad and enjoyed plenty of success as he won the British Rally Championship title and ended the WRC-2 season with victory at the Central European Rally.

These impressive performances saw Adrien secure a full-time seat in WRC for the 2024 season in the Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid.

Rovanperä's rally results to date

2023 WRC: Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT – 1st, 217 points (3 wins, 6 podiums) – season in progress

2022 WRC: Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT – 1st, 255 points (6 wins, 8 podiums)

2021 WRC: Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT – 4th, 142 points (2 wins, 4 podiums)

2020 WRC: Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT – 5th, 80 points (1 podium)

2019 WRC2 Pro: World Champion (5 wins)

2018 WRC2: Škoda Motorsport II – 3rd (2 wins)

2017 WRC2: 15th (1 win), Latvia national champion

2016: Latvia national champion

2015: Latvia R2 class champion