Formula 1 is often seen to be the pinnacle of motorsport. It’s the championship that consistently steals the mainstream headlines and provides household names. But as one former F1 driver has pointed out, that shouldn’t detract from what rallying has to offer – a discipline that’s, in many ways, more extreme and demanding for its participants.
Heikki Kovalainen might not have been the most successful F1 driver during his single-seater career, but it’s not like he wasn’t sharp either. He secured podiums and won the 2008 Hungarian Grand Prix after all.
And when it comes to experience, he’s not lacking in that department either. He knows what it takes to be a world champion and consistently be at the top of your game. He saw that approach when paired with Lewis Hamilton at McLaren.
Having now embarked into the world of rallying, Kovalainen’s eyes have been opened even wider. And it’s made him realize just how much focus and dedication every driver needs to make it to the end of a rally, let alone win one.
As he puts it, great F1 champions need that exemplary work ethic to win multiple world championships, but in rally, every driver needs it just to compete.
“I think in both [F1 and rally] you need a lot of confidence in your own ability, like natural confidence in your own ability”, Kovalainen told DirtFish.
“I’ve been a team-mate to drivers like Hamilton and he, even if he has bad days you can just see that he gets fuel from that.
“And I think that the great champions, they all have that. When they get knocked down, they just going to come back stronger twice as hard.
“I think in rallying, and I guess to some extent in F1 as well, what you see and what you hear are very important – perhaps more important in rallying.
“You’ve got to really read the road and check quite far ahead. OK there’s a bit of mud there, I’ve got to back off there but now the Tarmac looks clean so now I’ve just got to go harder.
“In F1 usually the conditions are a bit more stable but obviously you need good eyes and good hearing there as well.
“I remember myself, I used to hear where the engine range was. It was quite important, sometimes you’ve got to short shift as you feel like you’re running out of grip or sometimes you’ve got to go all the way to the top.
“You need those skills in both F1 and rallying but I think the eyes are particularly important in rallying.”
Kovalainen is of the opinion that F1 drivers do understand just how much talent a top rally driver possesses, but thinks it’s sometimes hard for fans to fully respect the discipline if they don’t take a huge amount of interest in it.
But when it comes to rallying, it’s not necessarily driving the car that’s the hardest part, it’s the pacenotes.
“I think [F1 drivers] think they [rally drivers] are a bit of a nutcases but there’s a lot of respect,” the former McLaren driver said.
“The F1 drivers know how difficult it is. Perhaps sometimes a fan or someone who is following rallying doesn’t really appreciate how difficult it is, it is a really difficult sport.
“It’s not difficult to drive a car if you know where to go and if you know the road. For all the professional drivers, whether it’s a racing driver or a rally driver, you can drive a car to a certain limit and to a certain extent quite easily.
“Of course the last bit is always difficult but in rallying the challenge comes when the road becomes unknown and you make pacenotes, and just check the stage a couple of times and then you’ve got to go.
“That’s really the key and I feel people don’t appreciate that difficulty sometimes enough.”
And that’s where Kovalainen feels experience pays dividends. In F1 a young, inexperienced driver can jump in a top car and set competitive times immediately.
But when it comes to a rally car, only very special drivers can perform at the equivalent level in that space of time. Even then it’s not immediate.
Look at Kalle Rovanperä, the World Rally Championship’s youngest champion.
He’s not been around in WRC for long, granted. But it still took him two seasons before he won his first WRC round. Hamilton by comparison won in F1 by his sixth race.
“That’s why I think experience counts a lot in rallying, said Kovalainen, reflecting on that point.
“You’ve got to drive a lot – I feel that you’ve got to have a feel for the road and for the car and for different conditions, you have to have it very switched on.
“If you have time off from rallying it’s very difficult to gain that feel again, and then at the same time you’ve got to do the pacenotes regularly so that you actually make good pacenotes.
“If you make poor pacenotes, it doesn’t matter if you listen to them correctly if the pacenotes are not right.
“Both of those things I think are super crucial in rallying and that’s why for us, if we wanted to make the next step we would need to actually practice making the pacenotes and go during the week somewhere, some random roads and just make pacenotes.
“We don’t do that and when we come in to an event like this [Rally Japan], I can sort of feel sometimes that it’s not quite enough.
“But it’s just enough to get by this event I think.
“We are not in the wrong place, we can join not the top five but we are there in the mix and we can compete this event, but perhaps if there was more to be done we need to practice more.”
F1 will continue to steal motorsport’s limelight for a long time to come, that there is no doubt. But there’s no mistaking it, the level of talent required to perform in WRC is on a par, if not higher than its single-seater counterpart – and F1 drivers know it.