2023 was meant to be a real milestone year for Takamoto Katsuta – the season that he not only showed real progression, but also demonstrated that he has what it takes to be a real force for the future.
Last year, he was very much on that path. It’s fair to say that Katsuta thrived in Toyota’s Challenge Program, and proved that he could not only learn from his mistakes, but build on them to carve himself into a stronger driver.
And the results were rolling in, too.
In 2022 there was only one round where Katsuta didn’t score points – New Zealand. Aside from that trip down a bank, he was more often than not bringing home top six results and he reached the podium twice, finishing third in both Kenya and Japan.
Those performances earned him a promotion to Toyota’s main manufacturer team this year, and plenty more was expected. But four rounds into the season, it’s starting to go slightly awry.
Monte Carlo didn’t get off to a bad start, with Katsuta finishing sixth, but then he crashed in Sweden, crashed in México and in Croatia struggled to match the pace of his rivals, bringing his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 home in sixth.
Katsuta has openly admitted that he’s missing something in his driving. It’s definitely not the car, especially since Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans are lying at the top of the championship standings.
The first question that immediately comes to mind is whether being promoted to a full factory role is putting additional pressure on Katsuta and he’s struggling to adapt to that.
That is very much a potential possibility, but there is one large caveat.
Katsuta hasn’t got a full-time program with the factory team. When Ogier isn’t competing he will score points for Toyota, but when the eight-time champion is around, he’s driving just for himself – not even scoring points for Toyota Next Generation as he was last season.
So far in 2023 there’s only one round that Ogier hasn’t contested – Sweden – so there’s only been one round this year where Katsuta’s circumstances have changed.
And yet there’s been no clear sign of an improvement. If anything, it looks from the outside that Katsuta may have even gone backwards.
But has he genuinely gone backwards, or was he just flattered by the fact that other Rally1 drivers had a tough time last year?
On the face of it, Katsuta’s results so far this season may be worse than 2022, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s not progressing.
After the first four rounds of 2022 Katsuta had picked up an eighth on Monte, fourth in Sweden, sixth in Croatia and another fourth in Portugal.
Those are consistent results which earned him third in the championship – a strong position for any driver let alone one very much in development. But that doesn’t really tell the full picture.
Katsuta’s fourth in Sweden last year only came about by good fortune. Up until SS14, Katsuta had been in no-man’s-land in sixth position, 29.7s behind Oliver Solberg.
But then Solberg ran into mechanical problems on the road section to SS15, promoting Katsuta to fifth and on the following stage Evans crashed out of the rally.
It was a similar story in Portugal. Katsuta had been running seventh, but an issue for Thierry Neuville on SS8 combined with a strong stage time from Katsuta promoted him to fourth. And although he managed to overhaul Dani Sordo for third, Katsuta was soon reigned back in and demoted to fourth by Sordo on the final stage.
Hyundai’s off-beat start has to be factored in too, with reliability concerns hampering Ott Tänak’s start to the season and thus eliminating another driver out of the battle.
Even in Kenya when Katsuta finished on the podium, it came about because others ran into issues.
Gus Greensmith, Adrien Fourmaux, Craig Breen, Sébastien Loeb and Neuville all retired. And before those drivers began to suffer with issues Katsuta was lying in fifth.
Now this is not to say that Katsuta has lucked into these results. Far from it. Driving sensibly to capitalize on the problems of others is a shrewd tactic. But the point is his pace hasn’t dramatically fallen off a cliff this year compared to 12 months ago.
It’s therefore a fact that some of his results were flattered by others around him having problems. Without their issues he wouldn’t have been fighting for third or fourth on the majority of events.
This year, the championship is in a completely different situation. We aren’t seeing as many drivers struggling with reliability issues or making huge mistakes.
As such, it means Katsuta’s window of opportunity to sneak a better result is much smaller than it was.
The reality of the situation means that his performances last year are not entirely directly comparable to this season.
There is no doubt that Katsuta has the talent within him to clinch another podium result this year, even without others around him running into problems. But expectations do need to be kept in check.
The level of competition is much higher than it was this time in 2022 – just look at the fight at the front. It’s already a five-way fight and it’s pushing those drivers to drive even harder than they have been in recent seasons.
Of course, Katsuta needs to push on, but he’s still a driver in development, trying to understand his ultimate potential.
While the likes of Neuville, Ogier and Tänak all know they have another gear in them when required – something they couldn’t always display last year – Katsuta is still trying to find it.
Even if he only manages to get one podium this year, it shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a disappointment. The relevant context needs to be applied.
Put the results to one side for a second, and Katsuta’s main objective this season should be to show that he can start to get closer to the pace of his team-mates. That has to be the goal – forget everything else.
If he can make serious in-roads in that department as the season progresses, Toyota will know it has a driver worth keeping around for the medium term.
If he can’t get on top of his issues, the pressure will mount and mount fast. And in that scenario, Katsuta will need to dig even deeper to showcase that he is worthy of a full-time factory seat.