If you read our assessment on which team has the best driver lineup this season, you’ll know that the majority of the DirtFish team feel Toyota has the advantage. But that doesn’t mean team principal Jari-Matti Latvala’s life is going to be easy in 2023.
However his problem is something of a luxury: what to do with eight-time World Rally champion Sébastien Ogier?
The 39-year-old’s presence at Toyota will once again be a partial one as he’ll only contest select events, just like in 2022 where he did six rallies out of 13.
This year there will be a different arrangement for Toyota’s third points-scoring manufacturer entry. One car was shared between Ogier and the Hyundai-bound Esapekka Lappi in 2022, while this year Takamoto Katsuta will do all rallies in one of Toyota’s GR Yaris Rally1s and his car will be Toyota’s nominated third points-scorer for all the events that Ogier isn’t present at.
Latvala has previously gone on record saying he’d like to try avoiding large gaps in Ogier’s 2023 program – pointing to Ogier’s strong run of form at the end of 2022 when he did the last three events and performed strongly.
So, if we were Latvala for the day (and wouldn’t that be fun!), which rallies would we want Ogier in the team for?
Here are our writers’ verdicts:
Road position tactics are key
Perhaps the biggest questions for Toyota ahead of the 2023 season are how many events will Ogier do and where will Toyota get the most out of him? We all know the eight-time WRC champion is a superb all-rounder, but strategy may well play a crucial role in determining where the titles are headed this year.
I’m no Nostradamus, but I envisage a five-round campaign for Ogier this year. With the Monte Carlo Rally confirmed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Toyota try to profit from more advantageous road positions in Portugal and Kenya, replicating Ogier’s outings last season.
After that, it’s anyone’s guess but I would like to see Ogier go flat out for a Rally Finland victory, an appearance which would make sense given the team’s connections.
And if I were Latvala, I’d want Katsuta in the points-scoring car for Japan – it would be crazy to leave the local star out – so Ogier’s final rally of the year will probably be the inaugural Central Europe Rally, where the Frenchman’s experience may come in good use.
Similar to 2022
We already know Ogier is heading for Monte, which leaves potentially five other rounds for him to pick from.
I fully expect his program to be similar to that of last year, but with New Zealand and Spain not featuring in 2023, I think he’ll instead do Rally México and Central Europe.
His running order in Mexico should put him in a position where he can really fight for victory and given he’s a dab hand on the asphalt, and that it’s the first time the WRC will tackle three countries in one event, I think it has Ogier’s name all over it.
So with those two events in mind, I think his year will look like this: Monte Carlo, México, Portugal, Safari Rally Kenya, Central Europe and Japan.
Katsuta’s strengths must be considered
There’s a lot to weigh up here. Perhaps what’s more important to look at than where Ogier might excel is where Katsuta would excel. There aren’t many rallies where Ogier would struggle to perform, whereas Katsuta isn’t the finished article as a rally driver yet.
But that must also be balanced with keeping Ogier match fit and not having, as Latvala said he desired, big gaps in between his rallies. Katsuta will benefit from a full season but when Ogier’s not in the manufacturer-nominated car, he’s not in the car at all.
Excluding Monte and Sweden as we know Ogier’s at the controls for round one and Katsuta takes the reins for round two, I’d therefore want Ogier back for Mexico, Croatia, Rally Italy Sardinia, Acropolis Rally Greece and Central Europe.
Rally México is a special event for Ogier as his first ever in the WRC so he’s not going to want to miss that, while Croatia hasn’t been one of Katsuta’s best in the past. Ogier and Portugal have a long-running history but he doesn’t like the stages in the north as much as the south, and Katsuta was within an ace of a podium last season.
So I’d bring Ogier back in for Sardinia instead where he should have a low road position and we’d all get to see what Ogier can do in the reverse situation to what he was hamstrung with for so many years.
Katsuta has two Safari podiums so is a safe bet there, while he’s fast on the quick stuff like Estonia and Finland too. Bring Ogier back for Greece and play the road order trick again, while his experience will be paramount on a demanding asphalt rally like Central European Rally which also has the added benefit of being close to his home.
Toyota may wish to capitalise on its superstar by having him in Japan, but equally a Japanese driver in Katsuta scoring for the team is hardly bad PR is it?
If this came to fruition then there are some gaps for Ogier, but this – to me – feels like the best overall compromise from Toyota’s perspective.
Does this align with what Ogier himself would want? That’s an entirely different question.
A full season!
Monte, obviously. After that, it would be very cool to see him back on the proper snow in Sweden.
It’s time for another pair of cowboy boots, so Mexico’s a must. Croatia? Why not. He emerged from Zagreb with something of a bad boy image in 2021, so it would be good to show the real Ogier.
He can’t miss Portugal, it’s one of the classics. Sardinia’s a great opportunity to show what he can do from a more favorable Friday start position. Alghero done, then where?
Safari’s a slam-dunk for super Séb to clinch a win Kenya’s owed him for a couple of years. From there it’s Summer Fest at DirtFish. I think we’re all aware Snoqualmie’s biggest Saturday of the season is something that’s been on the Ogier family card for a good while now. We’ll be very happy to welcome them this time around.
Given that he’s probably going to be popping over to see his old mucker Ott Tänak at some point in the season, we can tuck Estonia in next and if he’s in Tartu, he might as well hop, skip and a jump his way across the Baltic Sea in search of another Finland win.
Having been out of his fabulous GR Yaris Rally1 for four weeks, let’s give him Acropolis – it’s another classic, after all.
We know Ogier’s a true mountain man, so it’ll be hard to keep him away from the Andes in the fall (yes, yes, you’re right, it’s spring in the south, but who’s counting?) for Rally Chile.
And then it’s a pretty quiet end to the season, with just the Central European Rally – great to see the gazillions of fans who will turn out to see the maestro – and Japan to go. Japan’s a must for any Toyota-driving rally God.
Thirteen seems like a nice round number…