Kalle Rovanperä’s third career World Rally Championship victory was stunning, both in its execution and its timing as the WRC readies itself for the post-Sébastien Ogier era.
Naturally then, he stole the show last week in Umeå – but he was far from the only one.
Thierry Neuville’s run to second place was typically gutsy and against the pre-event expectation given Hyundai’s struggles on the Monte Carlo Rally. And Esapekka Lappi’s return to the podium for the first time in nearly three years was well celebrated too.
Some made the headlines for the wrong reasons. Craig Breen, for example. Two retirements – one self-induced, one technical – kept eyes on him while Ott Tänak similarly captured attention with his hybrid unit dramas.
Oliver Solberg was part of an epic lead battle on day one and then ran into throttle problems, Gus Greensmith had a scrappy weekend that included some wild trips into the snowbanks and Adrien Fourmaux suffered a technical issue that put him out twice.
And then there was Elfyn Evans: in the thick of the lead fight, off the road in spectacular fashion at the flying finish of SS15, in trouble with the stewards for that incident and then out of the rally after meeting a snowbank head-on at speed through a fast corner. He certainly had a lively and attention-grabbing weekend.
In amongst all of this chaos, we all simply forgot about Takamoto Katsuta. An overshadowed performance was precisely what Katsuta needed, but it’s time to correct that, because fourth place for the Toyota Next Generation driver was actually a hugely important result – and the best of co-driver Aaron Johnston’s career too.
“I’m pretty happy with what I did, and it was a very good result for the team, so I must be happy about this,” Katsuta told DirtFish at the conclusion of the rally.
“Of course, in the beginning I was struggling a lot but then we changed many things, and I changed my mind also and it went much better, so I’m pretty happy.”
There are several key parts to digest there, but let’s start with the struggle aspect first.
As all three works Toyota and Hyundai drivers disputed the lead of the rally between them and another likely contender – M-Sport’s Breen – bowed out early, Katsuta occupied an awkward and lonely ground. He was cut adrift of the leading fight but comfortably clear of Greensmith and Fourmaux.
But soon he began to slip into the clutches of the two Ford Puma Rally1s as, on stage four, he got it wrong on a medium speed left-hander, “lost the line and got stuck in the ditch”.
Spectators quickly came to Katsuta’s rescue and pushed his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 backwards out of the snowbank, but not before 30 seconds had been lost. Naturally, that knocked his confidence for the rest of the day, but he gamely clung onto sixth place at the end of Friday.
They [the team] changed my brain maybe!Katsuta on what turned his Rally Sweden around on day two
Saturday brought about a massive step change. Although his times still flew under the radar due to the pulsating battle out front, Katsuta was on pace with all of the leaders in the morning and beginning to take swipes at Solberg’s fifth spot.
What had he found? What had changed?
“They [the team] changed my brain maybe!” Katsuta laughed.
“Actually, we changed a bit on the car setup and I felt much, much more comfortable in the car and [had] more confidence also so it helps a lot to drive and carry more speed, so that was a pretty good feeling.
“In the beginning, I was a bit careful because I have to check how it [the new setup is] behaving then straightaway I felt a very good feeling, so [it was a] very good job by my engineers and also my mechanics.”
That good feeling – and pace – continued into the afternoon where Katsuta climbed up into the top five as Solberg’s mechanical drama kicked in. But Katsuta was a net 2.4s faster than Solberg on the stages where the Hyundai driver wasn’t compromised by a sick car anyway.
“I continued like I had in the morning and [the] pace was pretty good,” he offered DirtFish, “and even in very bad conditions I was able to push a bit and still some sections.
“I was not so sure how to drive but everything’s going in the right direction.”
The plan for Sunday?
“Of course, they’re really nice stages tomorrow so I try and enjoy that, and [on the] powerstage if I feel comfortable after [the] first pass I try to push on the powerstage.”
And that’s exactly what Katsuta did. The fourth fastest time – just 2.8s off Tänak’s benchmark – netted him two bonus points to compliment the 12 he scooped for the fourth place he’d inherited when Evans bowed out of the contest.
It’s Katsuta’s best WRC result for eight months and as many events – since his standout podium on Safari Rally Kenya – and his first genuinely clean rally in that period too. Yes, there was that little off into a snowbank on Friday, but only two drivers made no real mistakes across the weekend: the rally winner Rovanperä and M-Sport’s Fourmaux who was instructed to drive without intensity.
Rally Sweden could – and should – prove to be the foundation of Katsuta’s restoration. A big result was back in the bag, but perhaps more importantly the pace was back too.
I pushed quite a lot and I set some competitive times compared to the very top guys so that was a very good weekend and I could see where I should improve.Kasuta reflecting on his best WRC result since Kenya last year
“Yeah, exactly that is the most important thing that [it was] not only the overall result,” Katsuta admitted on Sunday.
“I would say there were some places where I pushed quite a lot and I set some competitive times compared to the very top guys so that was a very good weekend and I could see where I should improve and especially [on the] powerstage, I had quite a good feeling also.
“There are still a few things missing but it will come. For sure like mid-speed corners, how much you carry the speed, this is kind of a small thing but it’s affecting [things] a time-wise. I think this is the only thing I need to understand a bit more about [how] the car is behaving because it’s completely different characteristics of car, but feels good.”
It’s nice to hear one of the WRC’s most likeable drivers talk in such positive spirits once again. The task in Croatia has to be building on this momentum – and if he does that, none of us will have any rhyme of reason to ignore his performance for the second event in a row.