For an event that debuted on the World Rally Championship calendar all the way back in 2004, it’s surprising to realize that Rally Japan has only ever featured six times since.
But calendar rotation in the late 2000s, the disappearance of the Sapporo-based gravel event from the championship for 2011 and then two pandemic-caused cancelations for the all-new Nagoya-based Tarmac event in 2020 and ’21 saw about that.
The focus of this feature isn’t why Rally Japan hasn’t featured in the WRC as often as it should have done, though. Its to reminisce!
Because although there haven’t been loads of editions of the event, plenty of iconic moments have occurred on Japanese soil.
So in the lead up to 2023’s instalment, we’ve picked out five. Remember any of these? Let us know if we’ve missed any in the comments:
Solberg’s dream win
Off the back of one of the scariest accidents in WRC history in Germany, the perfect way for Petter Solberg to get over it – and to hit back at Sébastien Loeb in the 2004 title race – was to win.
As it happened he did just that, and on Japanese soil to boot – home ground for his adored Subaru World Rally Team.
Quickest on the first stage by a mammoth 10.7 seconds, that set the tone for Solberg and Phil Mills’ rally. The Norwegian and Welsh pairing wouldn’t be knocked off the top spot all weekend, winning 11 of the 27 stages to lead from start to finish.
The smile, typically, couldn’t be wiped from Petter’s face.
Solberg’s heartbreaking crash
We’re sticking with Solberg for this second iconic moment, as one year on from Japanese joy the 2003 world champion suffered one of the biggest lows of his WRC career.
Things started well once again, as Solberg jostled with Subaru team-mate Chris Atkinson for the lead throughout the first morning before Atkinson slipped back, caught in the dust of Antony Warmbold on SS7.
For the next day and a half, Solberg reigned supreme. Leading Marcus Grönholm by 22.3s three stages from home, it looked like nothing could go wrong. But then it did.
Approaching a fast left-hander he was confronted with a rock in the racing line, and couldn’t avoid it. The rock vs Impreza battle didn’t favor the Impreza and Solberg was spat off into the trees, unable to turn or properly slow his car.
His disappointment was clear – lining up to take a television interview, Solberg drew some breath but couldn’t provide an answer, walking off instead. Victory emotionally went to Grönholm and Peugeot, just one event after the tragic passing of Michael Park, while second for Loeb assured him of the 2005 world title.
Loeb breaks his first bit of history
Kalle Rovanperä may be on an inadvertent mission to steal them, but there are’t many WRC records Loeb does not hold. Rally Japan 2006 was, however, the scene of his first major milestone in the record books.
Although Ford’s Grönholm won in both Monte Carlo and Sweden, Loeb was basically unstoppable in 2006 – even though his Xsara WRC was technically run by a privateer outfit, Kronos Racing, with the support of Citroën Racing.
Loeb headed to Japan on the back of a rare second place (Grönholm winning at home in Finland) but saw off his rival in a titanic battle to the finish. Grönholm led for the entire first day and looked to have the edge over Loeb, who was giving it everything but not able to match Grönholm’s Focus.
But SS14 changed everything. Grönholm surrendered 23.7s, and the rally lead, to Loeb as he lost the rear and spun in a narrow section. A spin on the very next stage just made matters worse.
Grönholm tried absolutely everything he knew how to take the place back again, but victory was Loeb’s by a scant 5.6s at the end of the 27-stage event – the closest WRC victory fight in three years.
But that’s not the real slice of WRC history that was made that weekend. Loeb’s victory was the 27th of his career, which surpassed Carlos Sainz’s total of 26 and made him the driver with the most wins in WRC history. It’s a record he still holds today.
Loeb’s badly-timed crash
The sight of Loeb crashing a Citroën was often referred to as a collector’s item. But on Rally Japan in 2007, that’s exactly what happened.
In a super-tense title fight with Grönholm, Loeb – who trailed the Finn by four points prior to Japan – was handed a gift when the Ford driver sideswiped a bank with his Focus and was forced out of the event with rollcage damage.
Suddenly Loeb had a huge opportunity. In the era where championship points were awarded to just the top eight and a victory was worth 10 points, fourth place or higher would be enough for Loeb to move into the lead of the championship.
At the rally’s halfway stage Loeb was sitting second, just 10.6s shy of Grönholm’s rally-leading team-mate Mikko Hirvonen. But a misread pacenote from Daniel Elena sent Loeb’s C4 WRC into the bushes with no room to escape.
Loeb’s golden chance to take points away from Grönholm had vanished: “A mistake in the notes, OK it happens,” said a deflated Loeb. “Wrong call. OK first time in 10 years that he makes a mistake – maybe not the best time to do it but it’s like this.”
Hirvonen won in Japan but in the end a crash from Grönholm in Ireland would prove decisive in ensuring Loeb became world champion for the fourth time.
Katsuta’s home podium
Aside from Subaru’s win as a manufacturer in 2004, there was no further home success for the Japanese when its WRC event was a gravel rally. But on the debut of the asphalt affair, Takamoto Katsuta delivered a slice of local success with a third placed podium finish.
It wasn’t the dream Japanese result it could have been. Two of Toyota’s other drivers, Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans, were in contention for victory but a puncture and wheel damage wrecked their bids respectively.
On Toyota’s home turf that meant Hyundai snuck in to claim a 1-2 finish with Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak, but Katsuta’s third place was a hugely popular result – his first WRC podium outside Africa and the first for a Japanese driver on their home event.
Toyota’s bid for revenge will be an interesting storyline to follow this weekend!