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Formula 1

Another champion's bombshell move might tempt Verstappen

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
6 min read

When Formula 1 champion Max Verstappen bumps into World Rally champion Kalle Rovanpera during FIA's Prize Giving Gala for 2023 in Baku this year, might he feel just a tinge of envy?

And it's got nothing to do with whether landing sick jumps on the roads around Jyvaskyla is more or less rewarding than divebombing past Charles Leclerc at the Las Vegas Strip - but instead with a massive decision Rovanpera has made that connects to something Verstappen has repeatedly spoken about.

The WRC's youngest champion - very comfortably so - Rovanpera sealed his second successive title with a round to spare in 2023 just under a month on from turning 23. Now, he has turned the rallying world upside down by forfeiting his shot at a Sebastien Loeb/Sebastien Ogier-esque run of successive titles - by electing to step down to a part-time programme in 2024.

"There are a few reasons - but the biggest reason, of course, is that I've been driving rally for a really, really long time at the moment," explained Rovanpera in a media chat broadcast by rally news website DirtFish.

"And I just felt that now it's a good moment, to take a bit of a break, to recharge the batteries and to have a bit of time off.

"Of course I understand it seems that we are really young, it hasn't been so long in the WRC category - but of course I've been driving for a really long time. Already, I don't know, six-seven years, full season let's say, even in the smaller categories. Of course, when you are young and most of the time has gone to rallying, it feels like a lot. I think it's a good moment to have a bit of a rest."

The parallels between Verstappen and Rovanpera are absurdly easy to draw - they have been even before both became world champions at the pinnacle of their respective disciplines.

Both are sons of former world championship drivers (Harri Rovanpera did get a bit more out of WRC than Jos Verstappen did out of F1). Both were moulded from a very young age and came through as the next big thing, earning the 'future champion' tag well before they'd actually made it to the main class.

And, yes, both have now lived up to that tag and then some.

Verstappen, who is 26, has repeatedly stressed that he probably won't be doing this for as long as some may assume, certainly not in F1. His stance has attracted a healthy dose of scepticism, but even those who believe him often link it to Verstappen's disillusion with certain aspects of modern F1 - a disillusion that was again on full display as he arrived to Vegas, said some very mean things about the event and then romped to victory.

But there's surely another aspect to it, too. Even if modern F1 was exactly how Verstappen drew it up, there are certain factors that you cannot get away from.

"You have to remember that Kalle is 23 years old," said Jari-Matti Latvala, the boss of Rovanpera's employer team Toyota.

"But, in fact, it sounds like he's young, and he is very young, but actually he has been driving rally cars since he was eight years old. And his steps to the top level have been - I would say, not completely professional from eight years old, but I would call it semi-professional.

"And then already at his age when he was like 17, then it was already starting to be in a [fully] professional way, being in a manufacturer's team and fighting for a drivers' title. So it means he had already thousands and thousands of kilometres under his belt, when some other drivers have only done hundreds by the time they were 17.

"So, that's where it's come from. Kalle had already a huge work, and now it's time for a little bit relief, relax the mind a little bit, so that there's energy for the latter years."

This "huge work", without meaningful reprieve, clearly applies to Verstappen, too. He was winning karting titles every year from 2005 onwards. He did two separate championships in his sole season in junior single-seaters, along with no small amount of testing, of course.

And now, aged 26, he has the 26th-most starts in F1 history. The driver he's just overtaken is Nick Heidfeld, whose final F1 appearance came at age 34. The driver next up is Nigel Mansell, who bowed out as a 41-year-old.

Okay, so truthfully this, the massive number of races, is something that would be different if Verstappen had his way. But it's a non-negotiable. F1 could make the next generation of cars more to his liking, it could bin off the sprints he dislikes so much, but it will not go back to sub-20 races a season.

So, as of next year, Verstappen will have made 200 starts - 200 business trips that take him away from home (yes, he lives in Monaco, so it's not quite true for all of the races, but you get the gist).

And yes, he's compensated very nicely for this, so doesn't have to worry about most of the things us normal people worry about. But performing in F1, performing at this level, is something that has to be all-consuming - as it so surely is in WRC, too.

Rovanpera says that his part-time WRC schedule will mean he has room to do some other events - "in drifting, hopefully maybe in rallying, and what else I don't know yet". Verstappen, of course, is famously keen on doing some racing stuff outside of F1, too, when possible.

What is perhaps most informative, though, is that Rovanpera isn't walking away or permanently scaling down. Under what is a new contract with Toyota, it sounds pretty firmly enshrined that he will be back doing the full-time WRC gig for 2025.

Could a solution like that tempt Verstappen in the future, too? OK, part-time F1 is unthinkable - but a sabbatical with a contract pre-agreed for the following year doesn't sound outlandish. It is not a luxury 99.9% of motorsport competitors, even if they're themselves worn out by the Verstappen/Rovanpera-esque grind they've been on since childhood, can afford without being laughed off by prospective employers.

But Rovanpera has done enough to get Toyota to agree to something like this. And Verstappen, too, will know that, while he's still in his prime, there will be a seat waiting for him and teams, probably Red Bull, ready and willing to adjust to his schedule.

Albeit in very different circumstances (without the luxury of currently driving a dominant F1 car), champions like Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen both walked away from the series, recharged and then landed a seat when they felt it was the right time for them to return.

None of that is to say Verstappen will be eyeing any restructuring or amendments to his current Red Bull deal, which runs through the end of 2028. At the same time, that would hardly be the most outlandish outcome ever - especially with the precedent Rovanpera has just set.

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