The World Rally Championship returns to Japan for its grand finale this week, although all of the season’s major titles have already been decided.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to fight for however, as nine Rally1 drivers take to the technical, twisty and treacherous tarmac roads of Rally Japan, searching for a final shot at glory as they head into what is, for some, an uncertain off-season.
Last year’s event was brand-new for everyone, but this year we have a little more indication of who may perform well on this unique rally.
With plenty of drivers looking for redemption from their last Japanese outing, and some looking to reinforce their superiority, here is DirtFish’s form guide for Rally Japan:
#69 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 2nd-4th-1st
2022 Rally Japan result: 12th
The newly crowned double world champion comes into the season finale with plenty of momentum, but perhaps also with a point to prove.
Rovanperä backed off as soon as he knew title rival Elfyn Evans had hit trouble on Central European Rally, a shrewd move that ensured his title success, but handed the rally lead and ultimately the victory to Thierry Neuville. With no pressure on his shoulders, the Finn will surely be in full attack-mode for Rally Japan, looking to secure another victory and make up for his lackluster performance here 12 months ago.
An impact with a rock face curtailed his challenge then, in an event where Rovanperä seemed to struggle with the cautious and patient approach needed on the never-ending turns of the Japanese mountain roads.
But the 23-year-old doesn’t often make the same mistake twice, and with the added incentive of giving Toyota its first home win, expect him to be right in the thick of the battle this year.
#33 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 31st-3rd-2nd
2022 Rally Japan result: 5th
The Welshman came so close to winning this event last year, with a final day wheel change cruelly robbing him of the chance to fight eventual rally winner Neuville down to the wire.
He’ll come into Rally Japan this time knowing he has the pace, and the temperament, to win on these unique and technical roads. Losing out to team-mate Rovanperä in the title race, the chance to give Toyota a home win, and the pain of last year’s misfortune provide a potent motivational mix for the Welshman, but he’s unlikely to approach this rally differently to any other.
Evans’ will take a measured approach as always, looking to find comfort in the car and build his pace from there without paying much attention to external factors. It’s an approach that worked for him last year in Japan, and has brought him two victories in an improved 2023 campaign.
#11 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 1st-2nd-20th
2022 Rally Japan result: 1st
The defending rally winner and the WRC’s most recent rally winner might just be the favorite heading into the season finale. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any reason why he wouldn’t be.
Neuville loves asphalt, and cut a relaxed and confident figure at last month’s CER. He knows that he’s at the absolute peak of his powers right now, and his belief in his Hyundai team is just as strong. That could spell danger for the rest of the field, and ending 2023 with consecutive victories would be a pleasing uplift in the narrative of the Belgian’s season.
With the chance to spoil the Toyota party again, and subtly reaffirm his status as Hyudnai’s lead driver ahead of Ott Tänak’s impending return, Neuville will be a hard man to beat in Japan.
#8 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 3rd-1st-4th
2022 Rally Japan result: 2nd
Ott Tänak quietly crept up to second on the final day of last year’s event, taking advantage of Evans’ misfortune to secure a 1-2 for the Hyundai team which he was departing under somewhat of a cloud. This year the narrative has flipped, and the Estonian only has one more rally to run before making his much publicized return to the Korean marque.
Whether that return comes on the back of a triumph or turmoil remains to be seen. Tänak survived CER to finish on the podium despite yet more issues with his M-Sport Ford Puma and fairly mediocre pace. It’s likely he won’t be too confident of getting through Japan without more gremlins hampering his progress.
If the pace is there on Friday, and Estonian can smell a victory, then there’s no doubt Tänak will be as motivated as anyone else in the field to reach the top step of the podium. But if he can’t fight with his rivals for whatever reason, he’ll be longing for the first flight home and the fresh start that 2024 will bring.
Japan may just be about surviving and picking up positions where he can.
#17 Sébastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 4th-10th-1st
2022 Rally Japan result: 4th
The story of the eight-time world champion’s previous Rally Japan is spookily similar to that of his last WRC outing on CER. In Japan, Ogier punctured on Friday’s first stage, effectively ending his chance at victory (the only reason the Frenchman shows up these days) there and then.
On CER just three weeks ago, he broke a wheel rim on the first stage of Friday, causing his rally to suffer the same fate. Both outings ended in a fourth place finish after two days simply driving through stages trying to find enjoyment where he could.
Make of that coincidence what you will, but there’s no doubt that the troubles of both events stopped Ogier demonstrating the underlying pace he unquestionably still has. Three wins this year is a remarkable return for a part-season campaign, and adding a fourth victory in Japan would give the Frenchman a staggering 50% win-rate in 2023.
The prospect of being the Toyota driver who delivers a first home win for the manufacturer will also be a motivating factor for Ogier. With his team-mates stealing the limelight of late, he’ll doubtless take great pride in demonstrating to the team that although he’s only a part-timer, he’s still the man to deliver the big results when it counts.
Bad luck aside, he should be amongst the leaders right from the start.
#4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: DNF-DNF-5th
2022 Rally Japan result: N/A
That recent run of results will make for painful reading for Esapekka Lappi, whose season has rapidly headed south after a promising start. A first trip to Japan for the Finn isn’t exactly the best place to try to gain some redemption, given he lacks the learnings from last year that most of his rivals will be able to build on.
However, Lappi did demonstrate some strong pace in the wet conditions on CER before his encounter with the trees on Friday. If the conditions are similar in Japan, and the Hyundai driver feels comfortable again, then he could surprise a few people.
Ultimately, with his 2024 situation yet to be finalized, Lappi needs to bring the car home in one piece above all else. A solid result will give a much needed boost to his confidence, and allow him to take some sort of positivity into the off-season.
#18 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 5th-5th-6th
2022 Rally Japan result: 3rd
Without a doubt, the final part of Takamoto Katsuta’s season has been building up to this event. The Japanese driver has openly talked about wanting to take positive momentum into Rally Japan, and a run of solid finishes and a mistake-free outing on CER have given him exactly that.
With the pressure of the manufacturers’ title no longer an issue, it’s now time for Katsuta to show his home fans and his employer just how fast he can really go. Although he admits he’s still not entirely comfortable on asphalt surfaces, Katsuta did set some impressive stage times on the Friday of last year’s event, before his victory challenge faded after opting for a more cautious approach on Saturday.
This time, if the Japanese pushes as hard as he says he will, then he might be capable of keeping in-touch with the leaders throughout the event. A repeat of last year’s podium, earned on pace this time instead of through the misfortune of others, would be a dream result for Katsuta.
#6 Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 3rd-5th-DNF
2022 Rally Japan result: DNF
The less said about Dani Sordo’s 2022 Rally Japan, the better. A scary fire on the event’s first proper stage meant the Spaniard had nothing but a set of pacenotes to show for his long trip east. This year, therefore, will effectively be his first proper taste of the Nagoya-based event.
But Sordo’s always gone well on asphalt, especially on those rallies with variable surface conditions such as Rally Germany. His pace will no-doubt be solid, and his ability to bring home the car in one piece could serve him well if others encounter trouble.
A podium isn’t out of the question for the 40-year-old, who will likely have to shake off plenty of questions about his yet to be confirmed future before the week is over with.
#16 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 8th-11th-8th
2022 Rally Japan result: N/A
Returning to Rally1 as a gift from M-Sport after an encouraging 2023 season in Rally2 machinery, Fourmaux will be looking to enjoy himself in Japan. He’s been quick to downplay any chance of a top result in the lead-up to the event, preferring to treat this event as the cherry on top of an already successful year, rather than a one-shot audition for a more permanent return to Rally1 in 2024.
But if the Frenchman can show some of the poise and pace he demonstrated in his crushing Rally2 class victory on CER, then he could well pick-off one or two of his Rally1 rivals as the event progresses.
It will be interesting to see how Fourmaux handles himself in Japan, as he looks to secure his future at rallying’s top table.