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Relieved Rovanpera clinches World Rally Championship title

Finland’s Kalle Rovanpera (right) and his co-driver Jonne Halttunen celebrate winning the world championship in New Zealand.

Finland’s Kalle Rovanpera praised the perseverance of his team after clinching a historic World Rally Championship title with two rounds to spare on Sunday, after he won the Rally New Zealand in Auckland.

One day after his 22nd birthday, Rovanpera became the youngest-ever world champion, smashing the record set by Briton Colin McRae, who was 27 when he won the 1995 title.

The son of former WRC driver Harri Rovanpera, the Finnish prodigy was a class above his rivals through the rain-plagued four-day rally in the upper North Island that tested driver skill to the limit.

Rather than simply defending his overnight lead, a confident Rovanpera extended his advantage over four short stages.

He wrapped up the title by winning the 17th and final powerstage, earning sufficient bonus points to ensure he cannot be overhauled by nearest rival Ott Tanak over the remaining WRC rounds in Spain and Japan.

Rovanpera was on course to secure the title even earlier in the season after winning five of the first seven rounds, but he struck problems with his Toyota in successive rallies in August to open the door for 2019 champion Tanak.

There was a release of emotion immediately after victory was sealed, with Rovanpera dancing atop the roof of his Yaris vehicle alongside co-driver Jonne Halttunen.

After that, he embraced his father.

“It’s quite a big relief after such a good season and finally we are here”, Rovanpera said.

“It was a small wait after a few difficult rallies. The biggest thanks goes to the team of course, they made a rocket this year — a reliable and fast car.

“Even after the difficult rallies, they were all the time believing in us.”

The overnight positions remained unchanged, with French eight-time champion Sebastien Ogier finishing second, 34.6 seconds off the pace, while Tanak was 48.5 seconds behind Rovanpera in third.

Estonian Hyundai driver Tanak said there was no doubt his young rival — whose 237 points eclipses his own 173 — deserved the rally win and the championship.

“We had a far from good weekend but anyway, Kalle and Toyota has been very strong and they have beaten everybody fair and square, no question at all,” Tanak said.

Rovanpera bagged six stage wins in Auckland on his way to securing a sixth rally title for the year, all alongside Halttunen, who has wrapped up the co-driver honours.

Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala, a former WRC driver, said Finland sports fans would be celebrating the end of a world championship drought that dates back to 2002.

He noted Marcus Gronholm’s victory that year was also achieved at Rally New Zealand, two rounds before the finish.

“Rally sport is the second biggest sport in Finland and people have been waiting a long time so it has a big meaning,” he said.

“Myself and Mikko Hirvonen all these years were so close but we couldn’t take the title.”

Toyota holds a healthy, but not unassailable, lead over Hyundai in the manufacturers championship heading into Rally Catalunya from October 20.

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