World Rally Championship drivers predict that this week’s Rally Japan will be the most demanding asphalt rally they have ever faced.
The return of the event for the first time since 2010 has brought a whole new set of roads to the championship, as the rally previously ran in a different location on gravel stages.
Having witnessed the extremely twisty, narrow stages for the first time on the recce, the drivers agree that they are unlike anything they have tackled before, offering a unique challenge.
“Normally, rallies in Europe, or generally rallies on Tarmac, are kind of medium-speed to high-speed but this one is probably slower than Cyprus on gravel,” said Hyundai’s Ott Tänak.
“Definitely very demanding, very challenging. I would say every day has a stage which is extremely tricky. There are stages which are a bit more fun and flowing but there are stages which are very slow, technical, lot of grip changes, and many roads actually which have not been in use for a long time, it seems like.
“It’s mostly just a car-width of road. Let’s say, for me, it was a bit challenging in the recce.
“This one is not hard for the car, it’s just hard for the driver, it’s hard for the concentration, it’s hard for the pacenotes and many other things.
“If the weather is consistent, it should be relatively doable but when the rain hits, for sure it will be extremely challenging.”
M-Sport driver Gus Greensmith reckons the frenetic nature of the rally will outdo another event known for its twistiness – the one nicknamed the rally of 10,000 corners.
“It will be the trickiest rally of the year, without a doubt,” said Greensmith.
“I’ve never seen stages like it. We reckon there’s 20-30% more corners per kilometer than Corsica because it’s so slow.
“And that’s not the hardest part either,” he warned. “The hardest part is just how much there is to hit.
“Inside of the corners, big kerbs, and outside these drains which perfectly fit a WRC tire inside them and they line the road constantly through the stage. So it’s not like just bits, it’s throughout the stage.
“It’s the first survival rally on Tarmac. We have Kenya where you have to look after the car but here you do as well, and I think because the road’s so narrow you really can’t afford to make any mistakes.
“Getting yourself a puncture by tapping one of the drains is going to cost you more time than being slightly more careful throughout the stage.”
Greensmith’s M-Sport team-mate Craig Breen grew up on challenging Tarmac roads in Ireland, but feels there is little comparison with what he will face in Japan this week.
He said: “They’re green in places, there’s moss on them in places, so I guess there’s some roads back at home that have a little bit of green on them.
“But the profile and character, you can’t compare it to anywhere else in the world. There’s nothing quite so narrow and tricky and technical as that. It’s just relentless, honestly. So low speed, so narrow, no room for any error.”
Running first on the road is usually an advantage on sealed-surface rallies. Each car that passes brings more dirt onto the road from cuts in corners, reducing the grip for those that follow.
But with leaf litter and other debris on the Japanese roads, 2022 world champion Kalle Rovanperä, who will lead the crews through Friday’s stages, doesn’t believe that will be the case here.
“I think in some places maybe even the grip is getting a bit better if the Tarmac cleans a bit,” he said. “Some places maybe we are able to bring a bit of stuff for the guys behind but overall it’s so narrow without any cuts that at least there is not cutting and I cannot bring so much pollution for the others.
“Somewhere in Italy we have sections a bit more narrow like this, but this is something what you never have,” he added.
“I think with Rally1 cars there is corners where you can barely make it through, it’s so narrow and slow. I don’t like these narrow and technical roads, it’s not really flowy.”
A new rally to the WRC is always reckoned to level the playing field, as no driver has past experience of the event upon which to draw. On such demanding stages, Rally Japan could come down to who does the best job with their pacenotes.
“Pacenotes are key in rally,” said eight-time world champion Sébastien Ogier. “But here more than ever, there are so many long corners, blind where you need absolutely precise notes to drive on the limit and stay on the line because there’s more or less only one line, it’s so narrow.
“It’s going to be a difficult weekend, even with some rain probably on Sunday as I heard now so it could be a long weekend.”
It was over to Greensmith for the final words of prophecy.
“I think just finishing here would give you a good result.”