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Kalle Rovanpera clinches history making world title with Rally NZ win

Kalle Rovanpera has become the youngest ever world rally champion after claiming a dominant sixth win of the season at Repco Rally New Zealand.

Rovanpera and co-driver Jonne Halttunen secured a maiden world crown with a faultless run across the four days of competition on New Zealand’s famous gravel roads that rejoined the World Rally Championship for the first time since 2012.

The pair took the win by 34.6s from Toyota team-mate and outgoing world champion Sebastien Ogier, while Hyundai’s Ott Tanak, Rovanpera’s chief title rival finished third, 48.5s adrift. A fifth victory from starting first on the road, joins the Finn’s triumphs in Sweden, Croatia, Portugal, Kenya and Estonia.

Rovanpera ultimately sealed the world championship by claiming the rally ending powerstage in style, which put the title out of reach for Tanak with rounds in Spain and Japan to come.

The success sees Rovanpera, who turned 22-years-old yesterday, take over the mantle of youngest ever world champion from the late Colin McRae, who won the title in 1995, then aged 27. Rovanpera also ended Finland’s 20-year wait for a world champion since Marcus Gronholm second world title in 2002.

Changeable weather reduced the disadvantage of starting first on the road on Friday as Rovanpera ended the day’s six stages, sitting fourth, 7.2s adrift of rally leader Tanak. Although, the latter would lose the lead to Toyota’s Elfyn Evans due to a 5s hybrid boost infringement.

Rovanpera was also hit with a similar sanction that pushed him 12.2s behind Evans at the start of Saturday. However, the Finn once again showcased his skills in treacherous wet conditions to leapfrog Ogier to claim third after the day’s first stage, before claiming the lead by Stage 9.

Rovanpera’s assent to the lead was helped by the demise of Evans, who rolled his Toyota GR Yaris in Stage 9. Despite reaching Saturday’s mid-point service with a heavily damaged car, the FIA ruled that the roll cage damage was too severe to repair.

Two more stage wins followed for Rovanpera on Saturday afternoon as the Toyota driver, celebrating his 22nd birthday, swept to a 29.0s advantage over Ogier heading into Sunday’s final four stages.

Rovanpera continued to push across the final four stages before wrapping up the win and title in style by winning the spectator friendly powerstage held in front of thousands of fans.

Ogier was left to settle for second on his return to the championship for the first time since June’s Safari Rally Kenya, with the podium his second of the season.

Tanak’s run to third, a fifth consecutive podium, was hampered by technical problems with his i20 N during Saturday, in addition to a further 10s penalty for a second hybrid boost infringement that afflicted all three Hyundai drivers.

Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville overcame two pins on Friday, a gearbox issue on Saturday and a wild moment on Sunday’s penultimate stage to finish a distant fourth, 1m58.8s shy of Rovanpera. The Belgian’s team-mate Oliver Solberg enjoyed a relatively trouble free run to fifth in the third i20 N.

Local hero and former Hyundai factory driver Hayden Paddon brought his Rally2 specification i20 N home in sixth overall to claim the WRC2 class, finishing ahead of M-Sport Rally1 privateer Lorenzo Bertelli and WRC2 regular Kajetan Kajetanowicz.

Reigning Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen scored points and a WRC2 class podium on his championship debut after bringing his Skoda Fabia home in ninth ahead of Australian rally champion Harry Bates.

It proved to be another difficult rally for M-Sport Ford as Gus Greensmith, who won Stage 2, retired from sixth after rolling his Puma on Stage 10. Team-mate Craig Breen led the rally on Friday morning before retiring for the day when he slid off the road on Stage 5.

The fourth Toyota of Takamoto Katsuta exited the rally on Saturday afternoon when the Japanese ran off the road on Stage 12.