Kalle Rovanperä took an extraordinary Croatia Rally victory this afternoon as a downpour turned round three of the FIA World Rally Championship on its head in the final kilometres.
Co-driven by fellow Finn Jonne Halttunen, Rovanperä led from the start of the three-day rally in the hills around Zagreb in his hybrid-powered Toyota GR Yaris Rally1, only for heavy rain during the penultimate stage to wipe out his hard-earned advantage.
A resurgent Ott Tänak, whose gamble on soft-compound Pirelli tyres gave his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 a performance edge on the streaming asphalt, grabbed a 1.4s lead.
The pendulum swung back towards Rovanperä as drier roads o the closing Wolf Power Stage offered hope, but the odds remained firmly in Tänak’s favour as mud and dirt littered the final 14.09 kilometres.
Rovanperä threw caution to the wind and remarkably overturned the deficit to claim back-to-back FIA WRC wins by 4.3s. Victory extended his points lead to 29 after three rounds of the 13-event season. It was also the 21-year-old’s fourth at world level.
He had dominated the early stages of the event and was almost 90s clear until falling into Tänak’s clutches following a puncture on Saturday morning. He rebuilt his lead to half a minute until the deluge set up a breathtaking finale.
“I was sure we could not be so fast with these tyres, but it’s amazing,” said Rovanperä. “We pushed really hard and I think we deserve it this weekend. For sure, it was the toughest win of my career.”
It was a disappointing outcome for Tänak, whose victory drought dates back to Arctic Rally Finland in February 2021. “I didn’t take any risks but Kalle obviously did a good drive,” he said. “We were fighting for the win, but only because of clever decisions and tyre choices.”
The Estonian finished 2m16.7s clear of team-mate Thierry Neuville. The Belgian overhauled Craig Breen on the final morning to claim a podium despite a torrid weekend which would have forced many to give up.
He and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe were on the point of collapse after pushing their car for 800 metres into service on Friday after stopping with alternator problems.
Time penalties and speeding fines knocked them further back and they almost lost their podium placing within sight of the finish after hitting a bank and almost rolling. Despite picking up two punctures and facing an intercom issue they did enough to hold third.
Irishman Breen, meanwhile, survived an overshoot and a spin to take fourth in his M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1. The Irishman fended off a closing Elfyn Evans, whose fifth place marked a first points finish of the year for the GR Yaris driver. Japan’s Takamoto Katsuta completed the top six in another Yaris.
The tricky asphalt, allied with heavy rain and fog, proved led to several drivers hitting trouble and the remainder of the top 10 was filled by drivers from WRC2, the feeder category to the headlining Rally1 class.
Frenchman Yohan Rossel secured seventh and the WRC2 victory in a PH Sport Citroën C3 Rally2, his first WRC2 success alongside new co-driver Valentin Sarreaud. Poland’s Kajetan Kajetanowicz took second in his LOTOS Rally Team Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo with Finn Emil Lindholm third in a Toksport WRT-run Fabia.
A poor tyre compound choice cost Nikolay Gryazin valuable time across the closing stages and he dropped two places to 10th.
With Hungarian WRC rookie Támas Kurti co-driving his Ford Fiesta Rally3, Zoltán László inherited the WRC3 victory after long-term leader Sami Pajari crashed out on the final morning having been more than 20 minutes ahead.
Estonian’s Robert Virves was on course to win FIA Junior WRC but an accidental early check-in prior to the Wolf Power Stage handed first place to Finn Lauri Joona, his first victory in the championship for identical, Pirelli-equipped Ford Fiesta Rally3s run by M-Sport Poland.
The WRC switches to gravel for the first time in 2022 at Vodafone Rally de Portugal next month. The fourth round is based at Matosinhos near Porto from May 19-22.