Toyota has been the in-form manufacturer of the World Rally Championship season so far, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to issues, as Rally Italy proved.
Sardinia didn’t go to plan for the Japanese manufacturer and, despite the fact Esapekka Lappi was leading the rally until he crashed on SS10, Toyota’s technical director Tom Fowler already had concerns about the team’s overall performance on the event.
“I would say in terms of performance I have more concerns than in terms of reliability at the moment. In some stages, we had good performances but in other stages, there was clearly far too much time loss,” Fowler explained to DirtFish.
“I can’t remember the stage number yesterday, the first one of the loops each time, we lost too much time in that stage.”
That first loop of Saturday that Fowler is referring to was one where grip levels were a lot lower, and that’s something he acknowledges is a weakness and needs fixing. But it’s not quite that simple.
In a bid to cut costs, testing has been further restricted this year, and the homologation of parts also limits the development teams can do, meaning it’s harder to catch up and resolve issues when they are discovered.
“I think that’s one of the benefits, or the interesting things, about the championship in terms of the testing regulations and the homologation regulations, because we’re really feeling the pinch now on all these regulations.
“We’ve talked for many years about how to save costs, how to reduce testing and how to make the championship more cost-effective in terms of development. And for many years we never achieved anything.
“We went all over, doing different events with the cars, and the actual number of days your car was driving during the year was still enormous.
“If you go and look through the calendar now, which I’m sure you guys do because you try and work out where we are and what we’re doing, we’re not driving that often.
“And when we’re not driving that often, we’re not finding things to develop, which means we’re not able to design solutions, which means we’re not able to test them, which means we can’t homologate those solutions.
“I think everyone is stuck at the moment, in the sense that we have a package that we homologated and we have one test day per driver per event.
“So they each have a road. Each driver doesn’t get to try all the different types of roads.
“So you come to an event and you go into a stage and it’s not the stage character that you’ve tested on, maybe ever, with that driver in particular.
“You then get the feedback that the car is not good here. It’s not a surprise; you’ve never driven it here.”
But while testing has had some additional limitations implemented for this year, it’s not a vastly substantial change in comparison to the World Rally Car era.
You might then question why it’s such an issue for Toyota if it’s only lost a small amount of testing allocation. But the amount of time available isn’t necessarily what’s holding Toyota back.
It’s the fact that the Rally1 cars are still very raw in their development.
“In the 2017 car, we used to roll up to a test and, the things that we could have, we had 30 things to test in one day and we could get through them all because the car was just running like clockwork.
“Bang, bang, bang. There was no, ‘Do we have the correct hybrid map? Is the hybrid working? Do we need to change the gearbox? Put more mileage on a different gearbox because we are still checking the reliability of a gear ratio.’
“All these new things in the car which we haven’t had in the last year. You know, a totally new gearbox, a totally new hybrid system, they cost test time.
“So the drivers come into a test and we can’t say to them, ‘The program is all about you today,’ because it’s not. It’s also about things we need to do to develop a car for reliability and for different specifications for different rallies.”
But while the restriction in car development is a massive frustration, it’s also one that Fowler believes will appease fans in the long term.
“There’s a link there,” said Fowler. “I’m absolutely sure that the rate of development that you can physically achieve at the moment is slowed by the regulations that we have, which is what it was designed for, so it’s working.”
“And the positive side from that, for the fans, I think it will make all the events a bit more open because most rallies have anomaly stages where big time gaps can be made and where the leaderboard can be swapped upside down.
“And I think we’ve seen that, from our side at least.”