Are Kalle Rovanperä, Elfyn Evans and Esapekka Lappi currently the best three drivers in the World Rally Championship?
Rovanperä has to be in that bracket – how can’t he be when he’s rewriting the history books?
Evans has a justifiable claim too, but you’d have to say certainly Ott Tänak and potentially also Thierry Neuville have a case to oust him.
Lappi? Well, he’d be the first to tell you he isn’t quite on the same level (even if he’s actually far closer than he thinks).
But are Rovaperä, Evans and Lappi the best three drivers for Toyota?
A good driver lineup isn’t about having the absolute best drivers available. It’s about having the absolute best mix of drivers available. And that’s what Toyota has currently got.
Team principal Jari-Matti Latvala certainly thinks so, telling DirtFish that he would like to keep his exact same cast of five drivers next season – with Sébastien Ogier potentially nipping in and out (at least for Monte Carlo) with Takamoto Katsuta competing for the Next Generation concern in a fully factory GR Yaris Rally1.
If all the contracts are signed and Latvala’s plan comes to fruition, it’s perhaps Ogier’s re-inclusion that brings the most intrigue.
Rovanperä is an absolute no-brainer, and Evans is his perfect partner – quick enough when everything’s feeling right to challenge him, but an equally easygoing character that isn’t going to cause friction if Rovanperä gets the better of him.
You certainly wouldn’t get the spice that developed between Neuville and Tänak in Ypres with a driver like Evans.
Lappi has proved himself to be the perfect number three too – his return of one podium for every two WRC starts speaks for itself.
So why isn’t Lappi fit for a full-time drive next season? Does Toyota really still need Ogier?
It’s fair to say that 2022 hasn’t exactly been a vintage season for the eight-time champ.
Throughout his career Ogier has always been focused on the long-term goal (the championship). But this year he’s been aimless. Starting just a handful of rounds, a ninth title was never going to be possible.
The puncture on that second-to-last stage in Monte Carlo rather deflated not just his bid for victory, but retrospectively his season too.
Portugal was a messy affair where Ogier struggled to adjust himself back into rallying after his exploits on the race circuit with Richard Mille Racing, and it’s understood he was far from pleased to be the last of the four Toyotas in its historic 1-2-3-4 finish in Kenya.
Ever since, Ogier has disappeared from public conscious. Le Mans brought the end to his LMP2 program for the year, and aside from a Formula E test in New York in July, Ogier’s kept himself to himself.
But that was always the plan, wasn’t it?
Was it the right plan? That’s for you to decide – only Ogier can know if he regrets stepping back when he still had plenty left in the tank.
But it’s clear that so long as Ogier has motivation to rally, Toyota has a space there for him.
As Latvala put it: “You know that Ogier is an eight-time world champion and he’s still a very, very fast driver.”
And he’s right. Despite it being a sub-par season by his lofty standards, at 11.33 points Ogier’s average points return has been third best of all the Toyota’s drivers this season – with Rovanperä at 22.55, Evans at 12.88, Lappi at 9.5 and Katsuta at 10.22.
None of the Ogier magic has therefore gone, particularly on rallies like the Monte where his experience of what it takes to win will be a major coup for Toyota who wouldn’t have another Monte winner in its lineup without him.
So as much as Ogier might be a nod to the past rather than the future, it would be naive of Latvala to block Ogier if he has desire to do any more events beyond the Monte next year – particularly when Lappi has no issues with doing a part-time season.
But equally Katsuta can’t be kept out in the cold forever.
There are elements of his game that he still needs to improve – most pertinently a bit more pace on asphalt – but Katsuta’s consistency is absolutely second-to-none.
That record of finishing in the top 10 of every rally is being branded out a lot now, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. And dependability is ultimately the key trait of a third driver who is there to bring home the points when something goes wrong for either of their team-mates.
In that sense, surely Katsuta absolutely deserves a shot in the main team? Latvala wasn’t really expansive when speaking about Katsuta to DirtFish, simply saying he feels it’s better he does another year in the Next Generation car.
We can’t speak for Latvala, but put it this way – if you were in charge, would you sacrifice Lappi or Ogier for Katsuta?
I know I wouldn’t.
Katsuta is driving the same machinery, with the same opportunity – and is even getting the experience of scoring manufacturer points too. A lack of promotion for next year wouldn’t be a poor reflection on his performances, rather a simple case of there not being enough room at the inn for five drivers.
Could Toyota have looked elsewhere for talent? Of course, but what would it gain from bringing anyone else in?
Poaching Tänak would weaken Hyundai, for sure, but it could also weaken Toyota and upset the great balance currently within its walls.
The same goes for Neuville. And there’s nobody at M-Sport that’s outperformed Toyota’s current crop.
Rovanperä and Evans as spearheads, Lappi as support with occasional input from a 54-time WRC winner and an incredibly promising talent waiting in the wings.
Meddling with the equilibrium just wouldn’t add up.