Who saw that coming? Be honest, you didn’t. Neither did I. How could we? Kalle Rovanperä is a 23-year-old Finn with the keys to a factory Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 – perceived wisdom is that he’s still sleeping in the thing.
Kalle’s not your average Finn. He’s even better than the others. He’s the youngest winner of a WRC round, the youngest ever champion. He’s been behind the wheel since he was eight. Probably seven.
And now he fancies a break.
The interesting thing is that he’s taking a break from the WRC. He’s not taking a break from being behind the wheel. He’s not going fishing through 2024, he’s going driving, drifting, and likely rallying aboard his own Toyota Starlet.
What’s done for Rovanperä is the apparent tedium of a world championship season. Next year would have been his fourth full year in the WRC – we can’t really include the COVID-ravaged 2020.
Next year will be Thierry Neuville’s 13th consecutive campaign.
This is unprecedented in a driver so young.
Sébastien Loeb was the last driver to step away from a title defense when he started just four rallies in 2013. That was different. The Frenchman had done a decade and worn the crown for nine of those 10 years.
Those in charge of the championship need to take heed. They need to book some time with the champ and drill deeper into his decision. What specifically is it that’s forced the need for a reset?
A couple of decades ago, when Kalle’s dad Harri was busy in the WRC, there was more travel, more testing and more time away from home. But… arguably, it was more fun.
Dani Sordo is the WRC’s elder statesman now and ask him about the sport and championship he entered and watch the Spaniard’s brow furrow.
“It was more sociable when I started,” said Sordo. “Yes, you would work hard on the recce and in the test and on the rallies. But there was also time to go for dinner, to say hello with the other drivers.
“Now, you arrive to the rally for the recce and that’s it – everybody is going straight to the room and working on the videos all of the time. It’s changed.”
The life of a WRC crew has changed immeasurably in a generation. They might not be on location for as long, but every moment they’re in town for a WRC round, it’s eyes down on the onboards for fear that somebody’s watching more than you.
When Rovanperä won his maiden title last year, the toll it took on him was obvious. By the end of Rally New Zealand, where he won the thing, he looked pretty much spent. It was the same through Spain and into Japan.
By his own admission, retaining the crown has been harder work through this year.
From the outside looking in, you could say Kalle’s day job has been complicated by his decision to drift. Certainly, the desire to send the GR Corolla or Supra sideways has landed him many airmiles, but I’d say it’s the drifting that has helped keep him on track in the WRC.
Drifting is Rovanperä’s escape. His downtime.
Getting away and doing more of that in 2024 will help charge his batteries for the following seasons.
It’s quite possible Toyota could have held him to a full-time contract through 2024, but where’s the sense in that? If he doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t want to tackle every event, surely it’s sensible to give him the freedom to reset and return stronger than ever.
And, ultimately, after the world’s picked over this decision and thought process behind it, it’s up to Kalle and his co-driver Jonne Halttunen. They know what’s best for themselves.
On a personal level, I’ll miss the pair of them being on every event. They’re two of the nicest guys in the WRC.
But they’ll be back. Nothing surer.
In the meantime, the 2024 season has just been blown wide open.