Rovanpera wins back-to-back world titles as Neuville takes Central European Rally

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Rovanpera wins back-to-back world titles as Neuville takes Central European Rally

Finland's driver Kalle Rovanpera (R) and co-driver Jonne Halttunen of celebrate after taking an unbeatable lead in the Central European Rally
Finland's driver Kalle Rovanpera (R) and co-driver Jonne Halttunen of celebrate after taking an unbeatable lead in the Central European RallyAFP
Kalle Rovanpera (23) sealed his second straight world rally title on Sunday with the young Finnish driver declaring: "I am going to enjoy this one more than the first."

The Toyota star finished second to Thierry Neuville in the Central European Rally to take an unassailable lead in the standings with one round of the season remaining.

"I am feeling really good," beamed Rovanpera, who last year became the youngest ever champion one day after his 22nd birthday.

"I am going to enjoy this one more than the first one," added the winner of 11 rallies in three years.

"I think this year was, for me personally, more important than last year. The competition was tighter and we did a really good job."

He said the "biggest thank you" was reserved for his co-driver Jonne Halttunen.

"He is the world's best co-driver," he said.

Rovanpera and Halttunen became only the sixth driver combination in history to win back-to-back world rally crowns.

Rovanpera was helped along the way when his teammate and only remaining title challenger Elfyn Evans crashed on Saturday.

The Welsh driver returned to the race on Sunday in a desperate bid to prolong the title battle, but in vain despite collecting five points for winning the closing Power Stage.

"Kalle was very strong on Friday and we didn't have the pace to follow him," said Evans.

"After that, of course we continued to try but it didn't work out this time and sometimes that's the way it goes," he added.

Rovanpera had been virtually untouchable in the treacherous Czech rain and mud on Friday and had built up a 36-second lead over Neuville in this new addition to the calendar staged over three countries -- Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.

A spin on Saturday's second stage allowed Neuville to cut his advantage by more than half with the Belgian claiming the lead on the next stage. Then, Evans drove into a farm when placed third, his slim title hopes gone.

That gave Rovanpera the luxury of coasting to the finish, knowing all he had to do was avoid a similar slip up suffered by his teammate to defend his crown.

'Incredible season'

Rovanpera clinched the 2022 title with two rounds to spare after winning the New Zealand Rally.

The son of former world championship driver Harri Rovanpera, the champion maintained his hold on the sport in 2023, winning in Portugal, Estonia and Greece.

"Nobody expected that someone so young could win two championships," commented former rally driver and now Toyota team boss Jari-Matti Latvala.

"(Sebastien) Ogier and (Sebastien) Loeb were already in their thirties when they won their first titles," he recalled.

Eight-time world champion Ogier praised Rovanpera's "impressive season", adding "I'm sure it's not his last" title."

As Rovanpera rejoices Evans will be wondering what he has to do to finally claim the crown following this third runners-up spot after 2020 and 2021.

"We'll try again next year that's for sure, but I wish the guys the best," Evans said.

"They've done an incredible season, wo well done to those guys."

The curtain falls on the 2023 season in Japan on November 16-19 with Rovanpera arriving with a points haul of 235, 44 clear of Evans with only 30 on the table.

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