The word ‘unique’ is one that’s often misused. But when it comes to summing up the look, feel and flair of Rally Japan, unique feels like the only appropriate descriptor.
The second running of the event in its current Toyota City-based location may not have been a classic from a sporting point of view, but visually Rally Japan is a complete contrast to any other event in the World Rally Championship. That’s something that is eminently noticeable for both those there in person and those of us watching on our screens.
The stages are twisty like Corsica, but most are in a damp, dark and dense forest setting which makes the cars look more like they’re sneaking their way through Jurassic Park than a special stage.
Then there are the road sections, which give us wonderful scenes of fans packing out the sidewalks with their colorful banners and flags to cheer on their heroes as they drive by.
But something else which stands out about Rally Japan is that while the fans may be seen swarming around the road sections, there are very few to be seen on the stages themselves. Crowds even seemed disappointingly sparse on the Thursday and Friday night runs of the Toyota Stadium superspecial.
It was only on Saturday that the stadium came to life, and the whole atmosphere was lifted to the point that it seemed like the head-to-head battles of the Rally1 cars must have been on the undercard for a heavyweight boxing match.
So what do the drivers make about the phenomenon of the Japanese crowds, and the event itself? One man who is never afraid to share his opinion is Toyota’s Sébastien Ogier.
“I think it’s always been like this that people love to see us close on the road sections,” Ogier told DirtFish. “And anyway the stages have not so much access, so it would be difficult really to bring many people to the stages.”
“But at least in the stadium we had a full stadium [Saturday] night. It’s something great, we’ve seen that at some point I think in Greece; I was not there.
“I think the key to success of the sport is going in the right direction anyway. One important key is we need organizers to pay attention to the calendar, because coming to Japan definitely makes sense.
“We’ve seen last year it was a start, but after second time now we can say it’s really a success.”
While he may have given Rally Japan 2023 his stamp of approval, Ogier still feels there are areas where the event can be made even better ahead of next year.
“Of course there are things to be improved,” he said. “Because now the road sections were very crowded, and [there was] actually a lot of traffic for us this weekend, so it was difficult to be on time to every check-in time.
“So maybe next year, the next step will be to manage better the people, because there was so many of them.
“But yeah, it’s definitely a success and a positive rally for the championship.”
Echoing the sentiment of his eight-time world champion team-mate, Kalle Rovanperä gave a mixed review when asked for his assessment of the WRC season finale as an event.
“I think I like it a bit better than last year,” said the two-time world champion. “For sure there were some issues again this year which shouldn’t have been in a rally I think, but anyway there were now some fans.
“For sure the people have now heard about the rally that it’s going on, it was cool to see so many people, the atmosphere was quite good.”
Pressed to elaborate on the issues he faced on the rally, the Finn added: “I don’t even know fully, I just heard from the co-drivers, always getting the info and stuff, just hearing that everything isn’t going well. I’m not sure what it was always.”
But while Rovanperä may have enjoyed the support he received from the local fans, it’s fair to say he’s yet to take much joy from driving on the technical Japanese roads.
“Definitely not my favorite rally still,” he said.