until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


'Put him in an F1 car, he'll be fast!' - a star's first ever race

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
11 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

The bare facts do not jump off the page. A fourth place, then a fifth place, across two races in a regional Porsche Carrera Cup series. One place down on where he started in race one, one place up in race two. Basically fine.

But racing does not take place on the page. And if you were to play that race back with all the identifying features stripped off everyone - ditch the names, the liveries, the sponsors - you will have seen enough from the #69 car to know there's something special about the guy behind the wheel.

Paul Meijer, one of the regulars in the series, has his hands full keeping the #69 behind as the first race at Zandvoort winds down. He is more the kind of name that you'd have expected here, a 39-year-old racer who's returned not so long ago to professional competition after a long hiatus. That description is no shade on Meijer, a 2008 race winner in the quirky, short-lived but credible Superleague Formula - joined on the podium after his sole win there by a fresh-from-Formula-1-and-Champ-Car Robert Doornbos and future World Endurance Championship star Alessandro Pier Guidi.

But that was then and this is now. A lap earlier, Meijer shifted hard on the main straight towards the pitwall, snuffing out a likely overtake from the car behind. He is following a similar strategy again this time, daring #69 to overtake him around the outside of Tarzanbocht.

Instead, he has got himself baited into the mother of all switchbacks. A dummy move - feign outside, go inside - is certainly nothing new; you see thousands of them in this line of work. But the sheer panache of this one - and the fact it was so clearly on the limit of available grip - draws from me an audible gasp, disrupting the relative quiet of the circuit's media centre.

I later tell the #69's team manager that I thought this was ending in the gravel trap. "I know," he replies.

"I was having a bit of slide and fighting the car there," the move's author admits.

"But yeah, made it work, and I was quite happy with that overtake, it was quite nice."

One race into his circuit racing career, Kalle Rovanpera has already got himself a moment well worthy of any pro's highlights reel.


It's almost too obvious to mention, but Rovanpera's status as basically rallying's answer to F1 supernova Max Verstappen is also too obvious to ignore.

Like Verstappen, Rovanpera was raised by a world championship competitor father and eclipsed his father's achievements in a very short span of time. Like Verstappen, Rovanpera was in the spotlight as an obvious star of the future from very early on. Perhaps the only surprising thing about either of them is that they've absolutely lived up to their huge billing.

And like Verstappen, Rovanpera is keenly and publicly aware of the toll chasing that world championship goal from so early on in life has taken. While Verstappen has spoken about walking away from F1 earlier than his peers, Rovanpera took things in a different direction - stunning the world of rallying last year by taking a year off from full-time World Rally Championship competition.

Sitting down with The Race in the motorhome of his team in Carrera Cup racing, RedAnt, Rovanpera says his 'gap year' is having the desired effect. "I'm enjoying it a lot, and I'm sure it's a good thing, let's say."

The appeal of it won't be lost on anyone - Rovanpera says he's having "proper summer holidays for the first time ever", seeing places he had long wanted to see, doing things he had long wanted to do.

But the big thing is simply not fighting for the WRC title - he's doing a part-time schedule, where he says "he's not done a good job" despite an extra win this season already. It's not that he doesn't want more titles, it's just about taking a break from the all-consuming nature of it.

"When you drive for the championship like that, everything around your life...a lot of effort goes into it, even like when you're at home, or what you do before a rally, after a rally. All the things are affected."

He has done "a lot of rallies" since 2017 - his WRC debut - but also before that, in lieu of what you'd describe as a normal childhood.

"I don't feel like I've missed something huge that I need to get back," he insists. "I'm not doing that. I'm just doing things, at this point, that I like to do."

But it's also impossible not to notice that there's a lot of "things" for a year off. Rovanpera is downright busy, including when it comes to his circuit racing dalliance. His Carrera Cup debut is no one-off, nor is it just for fun.


For Marc Goossens, the RedAnt outfit's team manager and driver coach but also a sportscar racing veteran of international renown 30 years Rovanpera's senior, the big question was just what Rovanpera would be looking to gain from a Porsche Carrera Cup Benelux programme.

There is a history of fellow rally luminaries doing well in Porsche Carrera racing - namely Sebastien Ogier and particularly Sebastien Loeb, the latter a race winner in the French series. But that wasn't a factor at all - Rovanpera was actually unaware of it before the interview.

The Benelux series isn't in the top tier of the Carrera Cup ecosystem, but nor is it a walk in the park. Goossens says it is positioned as a feeder into the big Carrera series - the German one, which shared the track that Zandvoort weekend, and the F1-supporting Supercup - and a cursory glance at the top ranks in those series' indeed shows a big Benelux imprint.

"The funny thing is, I think what pulled the trigger to have him [Rovanpera] on board was when I kind of expressed myself like, 'Hey, you will get a lot of attention, but don't forget, it's a very complex car and it's not that easy to arrive here and be fast' - and the minute he heard the word 'complex' he was kind of like, 'Hey, we have a deal'," Goossens says.

Rovanpera's prep began with a shakedown at Zolder in the spring. "We already could see that he was having fun at that point, but then of course because of his rally commitments he never got back in the car until this week [for a test day]."

A shakedown and a single test day comprising the sum total of Rovanpera's preparation for his circuit debut made what followed "quite phenomenal" in Goossens' book.

Rovanpera's Zandvoort weekend

FP1: 4th, +1.116s
FP2: 3rd, +0.221s
Q: 4th, +0.165s
Q: 6th, +0.388s (second-fastest laps, forming grid for Race 2)
R1: 4th, +7.073s
R2: 5th, +12.050s

Goossens had been impressed from the get go. "It's not so much about how quick he is - because we've seen kids come out of karting with no experience driving a Porsche and being quick straight away.

"But what impressed me most, and where the biggest progress came from, is he understands when you tell him something. He's capable of adapting his driving style or his mindset to what is required for this type of car, compared to what he usually drives.

"He reads the tyres very well. His feedback is phenomenal, his way of communicating with the engineering department is very, very great."

It came, Goossens said, with a methodical approach and a cast-iron understanding of the grip provided by the Michelin tyres the series uses.


But given Rovanpera's background, translating all of that into an actual race scenario was always going to be the question mark for Zandvoort.

First of all, what a track to debut on - an undulating, relentless puzzle with minimal room for error. "But there is no run-off in rally either!" Rovanpera tells me. "So I don't really care about that."

The bigger thing is not being alone on track.

His experience of that kind of thing, contrasted against his usual gig of hitting his marks on a provincial road somewhere with pace notes ringing in his ear, was effectively limited to some karting in Finland and simracing, particularly during the COVID lockdowns.

In real life, he had never even done a standing start. Come the opening race, his first one went reasonably well - but a crash caused by one of the rival cars stalling and being clattered into necessitated a red flag, which meant doing it again right away.

But the second attempt looked great, as did the one the following day. It meant, though, that Rovanpera had put himself right in the thick of battle.

That didn't necessarily work out in his favour - he got muscled down the order after that red-flag restart, and would've definitely been on the podium otherwise - but the team appreciated how meticulously clean and "in control of everything" he was across the three separate starts.

"The kid has never been around another car," Goossens says. "Everything he does, it's him by himself with his co-driver. There's no other cars around.

“The judging and realising where the other cars were, looking in his mirrors, not only one car but multiple cars approaching him, I think that's what caught him out at the start.

"But that's part of the learning process - and I can guarantee you I haven't seen many people do it that way, where there were no scratches on the car.

"His car is, like, 100% intact. There's not even one scratch on there. I have to say our mechanics just walk away from this weekend with a big smile on their faces."

Rovanpera, for his part, links his relatively timid first few laps on his competition debut more to "a lot of understeering". An attempt followed to address that for the second race - but the changes largely neutered Rovanpera's pace instead, much to Goossens' chagrin.

"We knew we were at 95% of what we need, we were looking for the remaining 5%. We should've stuck to the 95%, and even to 90%! Because I think we gave him a little bit less of a platform.

"On the other hand, after race two, when he came out of the car, I discussed it with him and the engineer like, 'We need to try those things'. Because even if it doesn't work as well, at least we know it's not as good, but it gives also Kalle the opportunity to get to know how it feels when it's not right.

"Because he will get to some point in circuit racing where the package isn't right, and you still have to extract the maximum out of it."


Goossens' confidence that Rovanpera will hold up his end of the bargain when the package is "right" is easy to share on evidence of that first race - not just the assured starts and the show-stopper Meijer overtake, but also how potent Rovanpera looked at the end of the race, coming within a mere 0.129s of taking that podium spot as he thrived in the final minutes.

The fastest lap of the race was his, and a mismatch in late-race pace compared to those around him was visible. In part, Rovanpera feels, that was due to him prioritising tyre life - but there were also more than a few hints of rain and thus uncertain grip.

The heavens properly opened up mere minutes after the finish. "It's a shame that it didn't start raining two minutes prior to what it did, because I think we would've seen something pretty cool," Goossens says. "Because you can tell that the car control is there."

Of course it is - that's only natural given the background of the driver. But Rovanpera doesn't feel this means he has to be in any way compromised when the grip is higher, in more normal circuit racing conditions. Those rally instincts of his aren't hurting him, he insists.

"I think everything, when you're, like, racing properly, it's quite natural.

"I've been always, for many years, driving between rally, drifting, also a bit of everything - it's really easy for me to know in which car I am and what I need to do."

And, Rovanpera reiterates, he is serious about this. Especially now that he definitively knows wheel-to-wheel action is his cup of tea.

"Before the start I didn't even know if I would like it, if I would like the battling and stuff...

"Clearly I liked it lots."

The good news for him, then - and for his excited team manager, and for Carrera Cup Benelux as a whole - is that there are three more rounds on his docket, and six more chances to stand not just on the podium but, as the potential is clearly there, the top step.


But Rovanpera, of course, isn't your typical 23-year-old Carrera Cup driver. He will not target Supercup glory and a spot in Porsche's works roster. He has enough of a profile to attain opportunities unavailable to mere mortals - but also a 'day job' that will, inevitably, keep him from being the best circuit racer he can be for now.

His employer Toyota will surely give him the circuit opportunities he craves - a Super GT test with Lexus or, say, an outing in the World Endurance Championship hypercar should be easy enough to arrange, and Rovanpera's admitted they've already spoken about the latter. But rally titles are what he's here for.

He says he has not regretted missing any of the WRC rounds he's missed so far this year - but nor is there any doubt that he is coming back in 2025 to go for title number three.

But what if he'd pivoted right now? Fully switched tracks? Could a driver born and bred for rallying change their spots and reach the top in the world of asphalt, kerbs and 'racing incidents'?

Both Rovanpera and Goossens are invited to entertain it as a pure hypothetical, and both are happy to oblige.

"You always have to believe in yourself, so I would have to say probably yes," Rovanpera says.

"If I would now start to work - I'm only 23. For sure I wouldn't be doing any wonders. I think I have used my childhood, like, senses and everything, what develops [in childhood], I have used them in rally.

"But probably I could still be quite quick on circuits, I am quite confident of it."

Goossens, though, is even more bullish, his words backed up by the weight of a near four-decade career that had at one point taken him - as an International Formula 3000 frontrunner - to the very brink of F1.

As long as Rovanpera found himself in the right environment, Goossens says, with specialists he can lean on and whose knowledge he can trust, he'd be A-OK in anything.

"I guarantee you, you put him in any given car - you put him in a Formula 1 car now, he'll be fast in it.

"That takes a different approach, it's a completely different package, but you have him do that, he'll be fast.

"Put him in a kart, he'll be fast. I think you cannot name any of all the extremes...put the guy in a NASCAR, he'll be fast!"

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • More Networks