Brilliant Rovanpera has all the makings of famous “Flying Finns” of yesteryear ‘Safo’

Kalle Rovanpera

Toyota team pour champagne on Kalle Rovanpera after he won the 2022 WRC Kenya on June 26, 2022 at Hell’s Gate in Naivasha.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The first Finn to win the Safari Rally was Hannu Mikkola in 1972 in the famous Ford Escort RS1600. Mikkola again won the Safari in 1987 in an Audi 200 Quattro. He was one of my favourite drivers in my childhood years.
  • The next flying Finn to win in Kenya was Ari Vatanen, who conquered the toughest motorcar race in the world in 1983 in an Opel Ascona 400.

“Flying Finn” is a familiar phrase in Kenya.

You would understand why if you watched the WRC Safari Rally last week.

Finland’s Kalle Rovanpera, navigated by compatriot Jonne Halttunen won the speed showdown in the dust and mud of Naivasha to extend his lead on the World Rally Championship standing to 85 points.

He has now collected 145 points after claiming four of the six rounds held thus far this season in the 13-round world series.

Belgian Thierry Nueville, is second on 80 points followed by his teammate Ott Tanak of Estonia on 62 points.

The 21-year-old Rovanpera hardly put a foot wrong with near flawless driving to leave his more experienced rivals the likes of ace Frenchmen Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier gasping in his wake.

Apart from an incident at the Super Special stage at Kasarani on Thursday when the young Finnish speedster almost rolled his Toyota Yaris at the first bend, his 2022 Safari driving was prodigious.

After losing 10 seconds to day one pacesetter Ogier to stand a distant 11th overall, Rovanpera recovered superbly to wrest top spot with a 14 seconds lead at the end of Friday’s racing.

He never looked back, superbly handling the thick dust, deep ruts, rocks, narrow roads, and mud and waterlogged tracks when the weather suddenly changed on Saturday, to eventually cross the finish line on Sunday 52 seconds ahead of second placed Welshman Elfyn Evans, navigated by Scott Martin.

He became the youngest driver to win the Safari Rally.

The flying Finn handled with panache the fesh fesh – a new word I learned that means, very fine powder caused by the erosion of clay-limestone terrain. Fesh fesh looks like solid ground but behaves like soft mud.

And boy, did it not get kicked up into spectacular cloud dusts that looked extraterrestrial!

Rovanpera set the fastest times in seven of the 18 competitive stages.

“This feels good,” Rovanpera told wrc.com on Sunday after his sixth career win. “Of course, this win is a bit more special than the other ones.”

No doubting his words. He showed it with his tweets to his almost 35,000 followers.

On Saturday he tweeted: “Safari really is a special place to rally.”

And after his victory on Sunday he breathlessly proclaimed on Twitter: “Winners of Safari Rally Kenya!”

Later in the day he again savoured the win: “This feels great! I must say this has been the hardest rally I have ever done…”

And Kenyans on Twitter (KoT) showed their love. Here is a selection of their replies.

Cleophas Okoth: “The Finland anthem is awesome”.

Samuel Ngala: “Great achievement in the world's toughest Rally Congratulations”.

Sylvano Mbatu: “Congratulations Champ. See you on the next WSR Safari Rally Kenya 2023."

Chris: “You deserve it mahn 100%.”

Mubaba simple said: “Hongera”, while a seemingly infatuated Khadija Mwitu could only try this pick up line: “Hi. Hi please. Hi again.”

Omosa Dickson summed it all up: “Congratulations, you came, you conquered”
Many implored Kalle to return to Kenya next year.

He is on course to becoming the youngest WRC winner.

At this rate, a second Safari Rally crown from him and he will almost certainly become yet another Finnish driver beloved by the "Safo" lovers of yore and present.

Indeed there have been other great drivers before him from that great Scandinavian rallying nation.

The first Finn to win the Safari Rally was Hannu Mikkola in 1972 in the famous Ford Escort RS1600. Mikkola again won the Safari in 1987 in an Audi 200 Quattro. He was one of my favourite drivers in my childhood years.

The next flying Finn to win in Kenya was Ari Vatanen, who conquered the toughest motorcar race in the world in 1983 in an Opel Ascona 400.

By title count, the most successful Finn in the Safari Rally, and the youngest Safari champion before Kalle, is Juha Kankkunen, who notched up three memorable wins.

The first was in 1985, as a 25-year-old upstart in the then dominant Toyota Celica.

He followed that up with victory in 1991 in a Lancia Delta and in 1993 in another Toyota Celica.

Kankkunen’s wins are etched in my mind because of a shared and rhyming names with his navigator of 91 and 93, Juha Piironen.

The names of this all-Finnish crew rolled out of our tongues so easily during our heated boyhood discussions then.

Another Finn, Tommi Mäkinen, registered double Safari victories in 1996 and 2001 in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution III and VI respectively.

I must admit when the Safari Rally was removed from the World Rally Championship itinerary my interest in the series decidedly waned.

But even in that period, trust a Finn to maintain traditions. Tapio Laukkanen, a native of Lahti, won the rally in 2017 in a Subaru Impreza WRX.

And now a new Flying Finn has conquered Kenya. Will he outdo his revered predecessors?

Only time will tell. By his own confession, he loves the full-of-adventure, machine-breaking Safari Rally and Kenyans love him in turn.

My confession. My all-time favourite Finnish rally driver remains the legendary Rauno Aaltonen despite him not winning a single Safari.

He finished second in six Safari rallies, forever capturing the heart of a victory starved, safo loving boy.

However, for now, I pick Kalle as my preferred driver in the championship, maybe because he is such an astute young driver. Or perhaps because I want to relive the romantic stories of flying Finns on Kenyan wild roads. Whatever.

I will be rooting for him as long as the Safari Rally remains part of the world championship.

This is guaranteed until 2026, enough time for the talented youngster to match and even surpass Kannkunen’s treble record.

See you next year, Flying Finn!


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