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What Rovanpera’s decision to go part-time means for the WRC

OPINION: The complexion of next year’s World Rally Championship was changed entirely a day after the 2023 season ended. With Kalle Rovanpera switching to a part-time campaign, it asks questions of the sport and what its future looks like, even if the Finn is scheduled for a full-time return in 2025

Kalle Rovanperä, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT

Kalle Rovanperä, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT

McKlein / Motorsport Images

Kalle Rovanpera’s decision to step away from a full-time programme next year has not only blown the 2024 World Rally Championship wide open but also serves as a wake-up call.

Speculation that Rovanpera could be set to step down from full-time competition emerged at last month’s Central European Rally, the very round where the 23-year-old became only the sixth driver in WRC history to defend the world title.

Such a call seemed inconceivable but upon hearing the Finn sincerely explain his reasoning for taking a break, the more it makes sense at this point of his career. There has been both support and criticism online since the news broke, but unless you can walk in someone’s shoes, an accurate and fair assessment cannot be made on the rationale behind any decision. Knowing when to take a break is commendable.

There is no hiding from the fact that on paper it seems a peculiar call given Rovanpera’s young age, while some of his rivals have spent more than a decade competing year after year. It most definitely doesn’t reflect well on the WRC seeing its champion, and one so young, taking time out due to the demands of competing after four campaigns in the top flight. But hopefully, some positive steps for the championship can come from this.

There are multiple layers and implications to Rovanpera’s decision. The most obvious implication created is a significant hole in the 2024 title race. With the world champion contesting a half season, joining the likes of Toyota team-mate Sebastien Ogier and now Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi, who will also move to a part-time role next year, realistically the championship will be fought out between four full-time drivers.

Elfyn Evans, a three-time runner-up will effectively lead Toyota’s charge alongside Takamoto Katsuta. This could be Evans’ best chance to grasp the title and become Briton’s third world champion. It also places more pressure on Katsuta now elevated to the second full-time GR Yaris. However, it remains to be seen how Toyota will choose to field Rovanpera and Ogier next year in regard to which drivers will score manufacturers' points. There is also the prospect that if Toyota splits the events between Ogier and Rovanpera, there will be one less Rally1 at several events, as the Japanese marque has fielded four cars at eight of the 13 rounds this year. It could mean a field of eight Rally1 cars will be a disappointing new norm.

With M-Sport likely to field a junior driver line-up, Evans’ and Katsuta’s challenge will come from the potent Hyundai duo of Thierry Neuville and new signing, 2019 world champion Ott Tanak. Evans, Neuville and Tanak scored seven wins between them this year, so in theory, it offers up a tantalising title battle. But on the flip side, it further highlights the lack of top-line full-time drivers capable of winning rallies. An issue that needs to be addressed but also links to a lack of seats at the top tier, which funnels down to a lack of teams and manufacturers willing to invest in the championship.

Rovanpera's part-time decision has blown the 2024 WRC title fight wide open

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Rovanpera's part-time decision has blown the 2024 WRC title fight wide open

But let’s not forget Rovanpera could quite conceivably be a factor in the title race taking a leaf out of Ogier’s book. The latter scored three wins this year, matching the tally full-timers world champion Rovanpera and runner-up Evans achieved across the whole season. Ogier’s partial season offers him better road positions at events which is something Rovanpera will enjoy in 2024, so there is every chance the Finn will be challenging to win on every outing next year. Given his incredible consistency this year, you couldn’t completely rule out a title bid of sorts if everything went his way. The 2024 championship picture now addressed, the biggest driving factor behind this decision according to Rovanpera is a need to “recharge his batteries” having cited the heavy demands and mental fortitude required to challenge for the world title. A worrying thought for the championship given his age.

“It takes a lot of time and a lot of energy to do these seasons, so that is definitely the biggest reason,” said Rovanpera. “We are going around the world all of the time and when you are pushing for the championships and for wins all the time, let’s say mentally you are in competition mode throughout the season, and it takes a lot of effort and strength to do it.”

There is no doubt that Rovanpera is a superstar. A talent that only comes around once in a generation. This talent has been cultivated from an early age, aided by his WRC rally-winning father Harri Rovanpera. A quick search on YouTube will unearth videos of an eight-year-old Kalle drifting around on the snow. But this has played a part in the move in a way as Rovanpera has been driving much longer than his age would suggest - 15 years in total. Let’s not forget he was driving a WRC car much earlier in his career compared to all-time greats Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier.

Rovanpera’s call should bring this matter [gruelling WRC event schedules] into sharp focus ahead of next month’s World Motor Sport Council meeting

“With Kalle we have to remember he is 23-years-old and he is very young but actually he has been driving rally cars since he eight years old and his steps to the top level, I wouldn’t say have been professional from eight years old but semi-professional,” says Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala.

“When he was 17 it was already starting to be professional so it means he has already done thousands and thousands of kilometres under his belt and some other drivers would have done hundreds of kilometres by the time they are 17. Kalle has already done huge work and now it is time to relax the mind so there is energy for the later years.”

To some, 13 rounds may seem paltry compared with a 24-race F1 season in 2024, but there is good reason why WRC drivers are often regarded as the best in the world. Rallies boast often brutal schedules with crews driving for 12 hours at a time competing in the most extreme of conditions. They are expected to go ten-tenths on incredibly difficult and dangerous roads having only seen them once, and in all-weather conditions. It is a skill that is jaw-dropping and requires intense mental and physical abilities. The long days and almost constant analysing of onboard stage videos that goes on behind the scenes would indeed take its toll on anyone.

The Finn's talent and personality will be missed in WRC 2024

Photo by: Toyota Racing

The Finn's talent and personality will be missed in WRC 2024

These long days have come into question this year prompting calls from drivers for rallies to be compressed. A proposal to bring the minimum event stage kilometres down to 250km to offer more flexibility for event organisers is part of raft of proposals to improve the appeal of the events. Rovanpera’s call should bring this matter into sharp focus now ahead of next month’s World Motor Sport Council meeting.

Then, of course, there is another side to Rovanpera only competing in half the events. The Finn has rapidly become one of the most likeable drivers in the championship thanks to his incredible talent but also his witty sense of humour. When the Finn is in full flow during one of his “full send” runs on a Power Stage, it is one of the sights in global motorsport, so it will be a shame for that to be reduced in 2024. His stage-end interviews and one-liners about patting dogs in between stages, repeating great lines from rally greats such as Markku Alen or likening the sport to Mario Kart all add to his persona.

The championship needs characters to attract new fans. But it is important to note that a rationing of Rovanpera will only be in force for one season with plans for a full-time comeback in 2025.

If we have learned anything from Rovanpera over the last few seasons is that he is mature well beyond his years – just look at his drive to victory in the Acropolis Rally this year. This latest call to take a step back will no doubt prove to be an inspired call. A rejuvenated Rovanpera will be quite some prospect for his rivals in 2025.

All involved in the WRC will welcome back Rovanpera to a full-time spot in 2025

Photo by: Toyota Racing

All involved in the WRC will welcome back Rovanpera to a full-time spot in 2025

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