WORDS BY: PAUL HANAPHY IMAGES BY: RED BULL
Reigning two-time World Rally champion Kalle Rovanpera shocked the motorsport world earlier this week when he announced that he won’t be defending his crown next year.
Despite becoming the dominant force in one of the FIA’s most prestigious championships, the Finn has now unveiled plans to go part-time in 2024.
Rovanpera says this will give him time to indulge his passion in drifting, but at just 23 years old, is he leaving too early?
Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier - WRC’s most prolific winners with 17 titles - won their first championship at 30 and 29 years of age. Indeed Ogier, 16 years his senior, remains Rovanpera’s team-mate, showing how longevity is more possible in WRC than other series.
After a disappointing Rally Japan last time out, Toyota also clinched a victory on home soil in 2023 via a stunning 1-2-3. With there being no sign of his team letting up, Rovanpera is therefore giving up a valuable full-time drive at WRC’s leading outfit.
On the face of it, this all makes his decision sound strange and as if he doesn’t see value in breaking the all-time WRC title record, but there may be other forces at work.
Earlier this year, the Finn returned to compete in the fifth round of the Formula Drift championship, and he’ll now be freed up to pursue such opportunities more regularly. He may even have ambitions of following in Ken Block’s footsteps and transitioning into adjacent rally or drifting categories such as Gymkhana or Rallycross.
Though still early in his racing career, Rovanpera might also be seeking some respite from the demands of being a full-time driver. He’d hardly be the first in WRC to seek a work-life rebalancing.
In fact, even Hyundia driver Esapekka Lappi is reverting to a part-time program next year in order to achieve a better home life balance.
And ahead of Rally Japan, Ogier himself described going part-time as a “win-win” situation, where he can spend more time with his family and “still be competitive.”
In other categories, reigning champions have previously made similar decisions. Who can forget Nico Rosberg’s tumultuous Formula 1 exit in 2016? Max Verstappen is now making similar noises about “spending so much time away from family” and having “already achieved everything” he’d set out to.
However, just like F1, WRC is a series steeped in automotive folklore. Winners are heralded as great racers for generations - you only had to ask the hugely dedicated fans at the final rally of the season in Japan, to see that for yourself.
Beyond the fame, fortune, and big trophies, racing is about being remembered among the all-time greats. That (if he doesn’t one day return to full-time WRC competition) is what Rovanpera could be giving up.
Stepping down opens an opportunity for Elfyn Evans and Takamoto Katsuta to take his leading role at Toyota, while boss Jari-Matti Latvala says he’s confident the team’s “strong structure and reliable car,” mean it can “keep everything going the same way.”
Having thrown away his chances of a home win, with a crash on Rally Japan SS2, Katsuta was upfront about the challenges to him taking up a greater role within the team.
“Honestly, in my personal opinion, I have to perform better,” he said at Rally Japan. “Let’s just say I didn’t do a good enough job this year. I need to do better and prove what I can do for the future.”
Clearly, Rovanpera going part-time will leave a vacuum at the top of next season’s WRC championship, in the series’ frontrunning team. It’ll be exciting to see who fills this gap, but hopefully in the far-flung future, he doesn’t regret letting his crown slip.