The Toyota WRC car that never was

Had COVID-19 not hit, Toyota's 2021 car could have been an entirely different beast

Did you ever think, at any point, during the 2021 World Rally Championship season that Toyota needed to be faster?

You know, the season where it won its most rallies ever (nine) and locked out the drivers’ championship with Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans, as well as scooping the manufacturers’ championship?

It was hardly left playing catch up, was it.

But the frightening thing is Toyota could have been faster. A lot faster.

Had the COVID-19 pandemic not gripped hold of the world almost three years ago now, a very different 2021 WRC season would likely have played out.

Unicorn cars are always a source of fascination in the WRC. Think the Prodrive-built Proton Putra WRC, or the 2017-spec Volkswagen Polo R WRC. How different could the last era have been had VW remained in the championship?

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Reigning world champion Toyota has its very own what-if machine – and it’s placed front and center of its museum in Jyväskylä, Finland.

What a tease.

The Toyota GR Yaris WRC really is just that though – a tease. Because the innovation and potential that’s bursting out of Toyota’s ultimately mothballed creation is startling but ultimately untried.

Combining everything it had learned over the past three seasons with a brilliant base car in the GR Yaris hot hatchback – which, unlike the ‘older’ Yaris WRC or its Hyundai i20 Coupe and Ford Fiesta rivals, is a road car specifically designed to be fast – Toyota was coming at this with full force.

Even if the car was only effectively going to be plugging a gap.

“In the season 2021 which was of course heavily affected by the global pandemic, this car was due to debut at that time and it was developed under WRC regulations, so the same regulation as our 2017 car but it incorporated everything that we learnt from the first one and was built on a chassis which was specifically designed to be a fast road car,” Toyota technical director Tom Fowler explained to DirtFish.

“So of course the starting point was incredible.

“In the first car there were things which we learnt which we didn’t know at the time to exploit in terms of aerodynamics as you see particularly but of course underneath as well.

“And we had the opportunity to be involved in the development of the road car, during the period where we were already running WRC car so the road car already came with a background in competition.

“The two together makes this what it is.”

What it is is an intimidating car, with a variety of bodywork changes over the Yaris it was supposed to replace.

At the front lies a smaller air intake and changes to dive planes, along with a lip on the outer edge of the front arch. These, along with the repositioning of the air exit vents closer to the outer edge of the bonnet, are an effort to rework airflow at the front of the car.

At the rear, it’s impossible not to notice the distinctive rear wing (a feature of Toyota’s of this period) but it looks even more aerodynamically refined. And then there’s the wing mirrors, which to the untrained eye may appear non-existent; they’re that streamlined.

Even though the GR Yaris WRC never saw a special stage, there’s rightfully plenty of pride from Toyota’s employees because of how good a car it should have been.

Fowler even remarked that it’s probably a good thing the car never saw the light of day – what specifically does he mean by that?

“To put it into perspective, we had been running the 2017 WRC car already for three seasons when we started to test this,” he said.

“We tested it for about four days and it was already faster than the car which had been in development for nearly four years.”

We were very excited about the performance level when this car came because there were so many updates that it had compared to the previous one Tom Fowler

Wow. OK then…

How much faster?

Fowler’s answer is typical of an engineer: “If you come with a new car, to go faster in the first test than the previous one is quite unheard of. So just to be faster is enough.

“We were very excited about the performance level when this car came because there were so many updates that it had compared to the previous one,” he added.

“On paper it should be faster but that doesn’t always mean it’s going to be. Of course we need to take into account there’s many things that can happen in rally – reliability and driver performance and you never know what’s going to happen, but at least we were confident at that time that we would be bringing a car that gave considerable advantages over our own one, which was already winning.

“For sure it was an exciting car.”

Toyota GR Yaris 2021 test

An exciting car that was always going to have a short shelf life due to the impending Rally1 regulations in 2022. But as it happened the GR Yaris WRC’s expiry date was even shorter than even Toyota had accounted for.

Its first test was in February 2020 but by April the FIA had imposed a ban on testing due to the effects of the pandemic being realized globally. Toyota attempts to grant itself an exception as it wasn’t seeking to test its current car but its 2021 car. However the FIA stands firm and says no.

The testing ban then lifts in June but two weeks later the GR Yaris WRC project has officially been cancelled. Toyota simply ran out of time.

It’s a crying shame, but Fowler insists that the effort was “not a waste at all”.

“Of course myself and a huge number of other people put a lot of energy into not only the design but the production and the first initial testing of this car to never see it really compete…” he paused.

“We’ve got the number 1 on it here in the museum because this car would’ve been driven by Sébastien Ogier. So you can imagine this in Tarmac trim with Sébastien Ogier driving it… these are the emotions we never got to experience, even though we did the work.

“It’s a car that, whenever we have a guest here and they walk in they come straight to here and say ‘what the [pause] is that’.”

If it had been able to compete, you sense the question from Hyundai and M-Sport wouldn’t have been ‘what the f*** is that’ but rather ‘how the f*** do we stop that?’.

Maybe Fowler’s right. The WRC probably didn’t need Toyota to be even more dominant than it already was last year.

Words:Luke Barry