Rovanpera becomes youngest champion with New Zealand victory

  • Rovanpera takes title a day after 22nd birthday
  • First Finn to be world champion since Gronholm in 2002
  • Previous youngest was McRae at 27 in 1995
  • Toyota close to manufacturers' crown

Oct 2 (Reuters) - Finland's Kalle Rovanpera became the youngest ever World Rally Championship winner on Sunday as he clinched his sixth victory of the season at Rally New Zealand to claim the title a day after his 22nd birthday.

The Toyota driver won in two hours, 48 minutes and 1.4 seconds to move 64 points clear of Hyundai's Ott Tanak and eclipse the record previously set by the late Colin McRae, the Scot who was 27 years old when he won the title in 1995.

Rovanpera and co-driver Jonne Halttunen went into the Auckland-based rally needing to score eight points more than Estonia's 2019 world champion Tanak to clinch the title with two rounds remaining.

The Finn won the race, 34.6 seconds ahead of France's eight times world champion Sebastien Ogier, also in a Toyota.

Tanak could only finish third, ensuring Rovanpera opened up an unassailable lead ahead of the final rounds in Spain and Japan.

Rovanpera, son of retired rally driver Harri Rovanpera, had led the standings since February.

"The biggest feeling right now is that it’s quite a big relief. We have had such a good season, then a few difficult rallies and now finally we could do it," said the first Finn to take the title since Marcus Gronholm in 2002.

"I don’t think about the age too much but it’s still special to know we could achieve this."

Toyota team boss and former rally driver Jari-Matti Latvala hailed Rovanpera as a "superhero".

"It’s amazing that a guy who just turned 22 yesterday can achieve something like this, breaking all the records in our sport and winning the World Rally Championship title," he said.

"It’s something very important for Finland, because 20 years is a long time for us. I came close myself as did others, so I’m really grateful that Kalle could do it."

Toyota lead Hyundai by 81 points in the manufacturers' standings, with 104 still to be won.

Reporting by Michael Church in Hong Kong, Alan Baldwin in London; Editing by Kim Coghill and Jan Harvey

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.