As he approaches, dark, concentrated eyes shine beneath the cap firmly planted on his head. He’s so baby-faced, you could easily mistake him for a schoolboy, but motorsport specialists know that he is a born competitor hungry to win. They say that he has natural talent combined with unbelievable experience. At the age of eighteen, he has as many rallying miles under his belt as competitors ten years older. And it was only last year that he passed his driving test, having been given special dispensation by the Finnish authorities.

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Kalle Rovanperä
ŠKODA FABIA R5 rally driver

Journalists often ask him who his personal hero his – a legend he wants to take after. Kalle has only one hero. It’s his dad, Harri, who retired from the world’s top-flight rally competition (the WRC) only 12 years ago. It was Harri “Rovis” Rovanperä, who gave little Kalle his first rally car. “In a way, 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,” laughs Kalle. In the end, his mother Tina was also supportive, though she would initially ask him if perhaps he wanted to re-think the rallying and do something normal instead. “She's fine about it today, but I realise they must worry about me during the races. I do motorsport. Anything could happen,” admits Kalle.

While classmates were learning to ride a bike…

He first sat at the wheel when he was six. Two years later, he was racing. Because he was still a child, they had to adjust his seat so he could see outside but still reach the pedals. A video of him driving through the snow-laden countryside quickly became an internet sensation and garnered more than 1.2 million views.

In Argentina this year he went too fast and slid off the track on one curve. He somersaulted several times and very nearly hit a tree. Kalle was taken to a hospital, but it turned out he had escaped the scary-looking crash with “only” a minor brain concussion. “It was my mistake as a driver. When something like that happens and both I and the co-driver are able to walk away from the car on our own two feet, you have to tell yourself that it was not for naught. I learned a lesson,” explains Kalle, who’s desire to win drives him ever forward. “From the first moment I started, all I wanted was to win,” he says.

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Love for home

He became gripped by the adrenaline surge of fast driving at the age of three, when he started out on a motorcycle and a four-wheeler. In the garage, he also has snowmobiles, a powerful dirt bike, a trial motorbike and a stunt special. If it has an engine and a steering wheel or a handlebar, it’s made for Kalle. One room in their garage at home is even reserved for rally tires for all possible conditions, ranging from gravel to ice.

“People tend to think that all Finns are cross-country skiers and anglers. Not me, I’m a driver,” says Kalle, who lives with his parents in a quiet area on the outskirts of Puuppola in central Finland. This town may ring a bell with motorsport fans because other famous rally legends come from there too – Tommi Mäkinen and Mikko Hirvonen. Kalle loves Finland. Once the conversation turns to his homeland, you can hear the pride in his voice. “I like the snow and forests. We have a beautiful, clean country with kind people,” he says, inviting everyone to come and see it with their own eyes.

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An extraordinary talent, even by Finnish standards

Their perfectly honed driving skills on difficult surfaces make Finns sought-out motorsport drivers. Their experience of driving on gravel and snow (acquired over long Finnish winters) is truly the envy of their southern rivals. But Kalle is also extraordinary by Finnish standards. At the outset of his career, there was only one big obstacle to contend with – he was not allowed to drive officially because he was underage. Others might have bided their time and practised their skills in go-karts, but not Kalle – his courage drove him forward.

At the age of fifteen, he became a lower class R2 champion in Latvia, the only country that does not require rally drivers to hold a driving licence. However, during the transfers between stages, he had to hand over the steering wheel to Risto Pietiläinen, who had also previously navigated for Kalle’s father Harri. A year later, Kalle easily won the Latvian rally and at the age of 16 he became the world’s youngest ever national rally champion.

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On the winner's podium

He was given the perfect follow-up in the form of a ŠKODA FABIA R5 rally car and an engagement with the ŠKODA Motorsport team. In Wales and Catalonia, he was the fastest in his category, WRC2. “It was a pretty good season,” he says modestly, emphasising the word “pretty”. Pretty good for him means he finished third in the overall ranking of the championship shortly after turning 18. He finished right behind last year’s world champion, Pontus Tidemand, and this year’s champion, Jan Kopecký. Pretty decent company for an eighteen-year-old boy, don’t you think?

When he talks, his gaze stops on a brass ring on his left index finger. “I bought it before the Welsh championship, where I won, as well in Spain. I thought maybe it had brought me good luck, so I decided to keep it,” he says, smiling. What does it feel like to stand on the podium? It takes about three seconds for Kalle to answer: “It feels great, of course. It's the best feeling there is.”

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At the age of eighteen, he is fully immersed in motorsport. He spends every minute on it and even made it a priority over his education. “I can always go back to school, but an opportunity like this comes your way only once in a lifetime,” he says, thinking out loud. How does he see his future? In five years he would like to compete in the WRC’s top competition and notch up a few victories. There is no arrogance in his words whatsoever. Rather, a steely determination, concentration and pure belief that whatever he does, he does it the best way he can and doesn‘t just fade into the crowd. He doesn’t want anyone to caress his ego and pat his back. When he’s sitting in the car, all other thoughts disappear. Time stops. There’s only him, his co-driver Jonne Halttunen, the car, the track and basic instincts. Kalle turns into a predator and the finish line somewhere in the distance is his prey. Kalle does not count. He does not use tactics. He drives and attacks. This boy, with a healthy dose of courage, will show the world what he’s made of.

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