Kalle Rovanpera is a gamer and a rally driver (Picture: EA)
Kalle Rovanpera may not yet be a household name – at least beyond his native Finland – but at the tender age of 23 he’s already an icon in the world of motorsports. He’s the reigning World Rally Champion, having just secured his second WRC title in a row, and only the sixth rally driver in history to take back-to-back world crowns.
He’s also just been made an EA Sports Ambassador, joining an illustrious set of sportspeople that includes Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen, Erling Haaland, Jude Bellingham, Sam Kerr, and David Beckham. One of his first duties in that new role, it turned out, was to talk to us via Zoom.
Given that Rovanpera has had such a stellar year you’d expect him to be pretty triumphant. However, it quickly becomes clear that he belongs to the great motorsport tradition of level-headed Finns, and he refuses to get overly carried away about winning the World Rally Championship twice in a row.
He is clearly chuffed, though: ‘Two times in a row means in a way quite a lot. It’s not so often that you can get the second one right after the first one. And when you do it two times, at least you prove to everybody that you were capable of doing it. So yeah, I’m definitely really happy.’
Rovanpera’s second WRC triumph was less spectacular than the first, but also demonstrated how he has an old head on young shoulders: ‘I think the key to this season was being really consistent. Already at the beginning of the season, I knew that all the teams would be more consistent, so the plan was to be really consistent and then get points all the time. And I think the only time we were out of the top four was in Rally Finland when we crashed out, so every rally other than that was quite nice.’
One of the most tangible rewards of his success in 2022 and 2023 was becoming an ambassador for EA Sports. So the obvious question is, is he a gamer? ‘Yes, I am actually, and I’m glad to be an ambassador for EA Sports. When I was a kid, I played a lot of the WRC games and driving games overall. So, yeah, to be an ambassador for a company like EA Sports is really cool. It’s a cool brand and all young people like me know them. So for me, of course, it’s personally really cool and now that they are working with the new WRC game, it was a perfect moment for me.’
As he alludes, his timing could not have been better, since 2023 was a year in which EA Sports notably upped its commitment to rally-driving, acquiring the official WRC licence and commissioning legendary motorsports game developer Codemasters, which EA Sports acquired in 2021, to make the game that bears its imprint.
Rovanpera is well aware of Codemasters’ rally game prowess, originally demonstrated via its Colin McRae Rally and DiRT Rally games: ‘Yeah, for sure, I have been driving in their old games, like DiRT Rally. And definitely when I heard that Codemasters are now working with this new WRC game I was excited – they have made some good progress in all the rally games they have made in the past years.’
So how does WRC 23 compare to driving a real-life rally car? ‘I would say apart from really actually moving and having the G-forces and stuff, it’s quite nice and realistic. I always feel that if I can drive a simulator straight away, quite well, with my driving skills from the real car, then for sure it’s realistic, because then I can drive the same way as in the real car and it works. That has definitely been the case with the new WRC game: I can straight away jump into the car and drive quite well.’
It’s likely that one of Rovanpera’s tasks as an EA Sports Ambassador will be to take on gamers in WRC 23, and he definitely sounds amenable to that: ‘That would be a good idea; I’m sure we are meaning to do something like this. There are already some people who are so good in the game that I really need to put some time in before that, so I can try to stay up to their pace; they are quite fast from what I’ve seen. Many of my friends also are really fast now already in the game.’
Rallying is a famously tough sport in which to gain an initial entry. Its participants have to be highly motivated from a young age and have the means to get access to rally cars, which are highly specialised beasts. That’s why two trends run through the sport: many drivers come from established rallying families, and many are from Scandinavian countries, which have a vibrant rally-driving culture.
Rovanpera’s father, Harri, is a well-known rally driver who competed in the WRC from 1993 to 2006, and Kalle offers some insight into when he first drove a rally car: ‘For me, it was of course when I was really young. I played some games, maybe, with the PlayStation but nothing with, let’s say simulators or anything like that. Then when I was six, seven years old, I started with the normal car and then the rally car. I did some karting too, but only for a few years.’
But that situation could be about to change; motorsports is one of the few areas of the sporting world in which esports provide a possible path from playing games to real-life competition. Several esports stars have already graduated to competing in real-life motorsports, especially in endurance racing. So, does Rovanpera think that could also happen in rallying?
‘Yeah, we have seen this happening in circuit racing a lot. I think in rallying, the simulators are getting better and more realistic all the time, and I’m sure that it’s the same case – that you can learn all the basics, at least, in the games, and then if you get the chance to drive a real car, for sure you’ll be much quicker getting up to speed and up to the real feeling.’
Having conquered rallying at the tender age of 23, it seems that Rovanpera has also been thinking about other forms of motorsport. During the 2023 WRC season, he announced that he will take things easier in 2024, contesting just half of next year’s World Rally Championship races. He explains: ‘Yeah, it’s true; next year we’re going do half of the WRC season, and then I will do of course some drifting, like I have done so far, and probably some circuit racing also. 2025 will again be a full year, so it’s just one year between.’
The idea is to recharge his batteries – rallying is a famously intense form of motorsport, in which drivers, co-drivers and their crews must put in detailed research and spend the best part of a week at each venue when its race is on. So Rovanpera wants to keep his 2024 motorsports diversification free and easy.
‘It will be quite casual. I don’t want to fill up the whole year doing something else – I want to take a bit of rest from the rallying and the travelling. So, I will hopefully get the chance to do at least a few events in some of the other motorsports and let’s see – nothing is planned yet.’
But there’s every chance he’ll also relax with some WRC 23 sessions. One of his 2024 projects is to assemble a new driving-game rig. ‘I actually had a really good one before; I moved during this year to a new place, so I’ve been a small time without it, but I’m building up a new one again.’ So that’s Kalle Rovanpera: double WRC champion, EA Sports Ambassador, drifter, and gamer – a thoroughly modern motorsports icon.
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