Toyota technical director Tom Fowler believes Takamoto Katsuta “has it in him” to claim a maiden World Rally Championship victory this year.
Katsuta joins Toyota’s official manufacturer concern for the first time in 2023, stepping up to drive a GR Yaris Rally1 alongside Kalle Rovanperä and Elfyn Evans when part-time driver Sébastien Ogier is absent.
However, Katsuta is more than acquainted with Toyota’s setup as he’s driven for the marque in nigh on three full seasons now, contesting 2022 in an identical car to the works outfit but scoring manufacturer points for Toyota Next Generation instead.
2022 was his most impressive season to-date with a remarkable run of consistency (just one finish outside the top 10 all year in New Zealand) and two podiums in Safari Rally Kenya and at home in Japan.
He’s therefore never started a WRC season in better shape or form than he does this year.
Asked if Katsuta is capable of winning his first ever WRC rally this season, Fowler told DirtFish: “I believe that he has it in him to do that.
“I think it now comes down to the question of when is that possible in that he now has the new job for this year which is a different kind of job to what he had last year.
“That being said, he’s got Sébastien Ogier taking on that job for him on certain rallies. So if he’s given the license to up the level of risk it’s going to clearly be in one of those rallies where Séb is taking the situation forwards in terms of manufacturers, but the thing that plays against Taka in those circumstances is that in a lot of cases those are then not Taka’s best rallies either.
“Of course [it would make sense if] you put Taka in for the rallies where you feel he can be strong and confident, but then you ask him to do a different kind of job than he’s done before.”
Katsuta faces an interesting situation this season as he will contest all 13 rounds, but he’ll only need to consider Toyota’s manufacturers championship on half of those.
So, for example, on next week’s Monte Carlo Rally Katsuta will be totally free to push for a result for himself, and won’t be asked to play any kind of rear-gunning role for his team-mates.
But even when he’s in the manufacturer car, if Katsuta leads on merit, he’ll likely not be asked to move aside for Rovanperä or Evans.
That’s because Toyota has famously never favored any team orders among his drivers. The only time it has ever intervened was on the 2021 Monza Rally when Rovanperä was asked to act as an insurance policy to secure Toyota the manufacturers’ championship, leaving Ogier and Evans free to dispute the drivers’ title.
“You know how Toyota operates,” said Fowler.
“Honestly speaking if we go to a rally where Taka is confident to push, he has a good feeling and there’s no risk to the manufacturers situation, if he pushes and he’s in the mix with the top guys, be that from our team or from any other team, if Taka gets himself there, he has the license to keep going.
“It’s a race.”
Should Katsuta win a rally this year, it would be an enormous moment for Toyota which has nurtured him ever since 2015 as one of the first candidates in its WRC Challenge Program.
“I think what he’s achieved in terms of podiums and strong results is already a really good picture of what’s possible,” Fowler added.
“I’m sure when Toyota said ‘we’re going to take these Japanese drivers and we’re going to teach them, put them through a training program and we’re going to take them to the world championship and they’re going to be on the podium’, I’m pretty sure most people thought that wasn’t going to happen.”
Katsuta’s first event as a Toyota-nominated manufacturer driver will be Rally Sweden (February 9-12).