Toyota’s fast gravel past isn’t decisive for Poland

Toyota has won all but one of the fast gravel rounds in the Rally1 era. Is that the biggest factor heading to Rally Poland?

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Toyota arrives in Poland for round seven of the World Rally Championship in rather unfamiliar territory. It’s not used to being second in both championships, staring upwards at its arch-rival Hyundai in the classification.

Anyone keen to stir the pot might ask: is Toyota in crisis?

No. Let’s shut that one down immediately. But it may still feel a tad shellshocked given how the finish of Rally Italy Sardinia went. Sébastien Ogier seemed set to capture the team’s fourth win in a row until a last-stage deflation (caused by the rim on his GR Yaris Rally1, not the tire itself) gave Hyundai’s Ott Tänak a chance to snatch it at the last possible moment.

The upside is there’s a feeling of reset heading to Poland. It’s the start of the fast gravel bloc, a significant shift towards the roads that, since Toyota’s Finnish-based comeback in 2017, have been considered its heartland.

In the Rally1 era, Toyota has been beaten on fast gravel only once, by Tänak in Finland two years ago. And the Yaris remains a formidable weapon, as evidenced by Ogier and Kalle Rovanperä’s victories this season.

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Tänak's Finland victory with Hyundai in 2022 was considered an against-the-odds win

Team principal Jari-Matti Latvala knows his team has modern history on its side. But he also knows that’s not enough to feel confident that championship momentum will swing in Toyota’s direction.

“We’re looking forward to this series of faster events,” said Latvala. “I believe they suit our drivers well, and our car has been very good on fast rallies in the past: events like Poland are where the aerodynamics are having a big effect.

“But I would say that driver feeling is even more important than the car setup: you need to quickly get used to the speed, be able to attack and be confident, and we will try to give our drivers that confidence.”

That confidence is what Elfyn Evans had been searching for but unable to find earlier in the season on gravel. In Portugal he was unhappy with the balance of his car – and at the start of the rally so were his team-mates, Ogier describing his steed as feeling ‘lazy’ to drive on the opening day.

While the other drivers bounced back, Evans never really got going at the next round in Sardinia, an early puncture deflating his chances of a big result. The difference then was carrying the mental baggage of knowing he’d been off the pace and uncomfortable with the car in Portugal, and how that same problem could carry over into Sardinia. That’s less of a worry for Evans in Poland – it’s as close to a fresh sheet of paper as he could hope for.

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Last time Jari-Matti Latvala was in Poland wearing Toyota gear in 2017, he was one of the drivers rather than team principal

“After a difficult couple of rallies for us, we’re definitely hoping to find better form on these faster rallies coming up,” said Evans. “The overriding memory of Rally Poland from the past is that it’s a pretty fast rally: it will be definitely be a change of pace from the last event in Sardinia.

“There will be sections that we’ve driven in the past, but the pacenotes we have are quite old, so in that way, it’s more like a new rally and probably quite a busy recce making fresh notes.”

One obstacle for Toyota in Poland is the remainder of its lineup being a little out of practice.

Ogier remains in the kind of form that delivered him eight world championships, based on his record so far in 2024. But there is potentially an element of rustiness to shake off; the two-time Poland winner has not competed on a flat-out fast gravel event since Rally Finland 2021, when he was still a full-timer.

“It’s true that I haven’t driven many fast rallies in recent seasons, but I feel good in the car at the moment and the target remains the same as in recent events: to fight for the win,” said Ogier.

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Sébastien Ogier has been absent from recent fast gravel rallies. He finished fifth on his most recent fast gravel event, Finland 2021

“It was a rally I generally enjoyed in the past and one that has given me some good memories. It’s an extremely fast rally, even though the roads are not necessarily extremely wide, but there are also these soft and sandy places where the second pass conditions can create some surprises. Now going back there after seven years gives the feeling of a new rally, which is something I always like.”

Takamoto Katsuta has spent so much time in the Nordics while climbing through Toyota’s Challenge Program that fast gravel is effectively his home turf. But like Adrien Fourmaux at M-Sport, he has never turned a wheel on Polish gravel and has already sought to temper expectations.

As Ogier pointed out, Poland is also an outlier in the block of three similar events coming up. Its roads can get rutted quickly and it’s still a bit slower than Latvia and Finland. And it’s worth remembering that the last time WRC came to town in 2017, the result was a Hyundai one-two.

Tempered optimism is potentially the best way to describe Toyota’s position heading to Poland. It’s on the back foot for now – but as Neuville’s off in Sardinia and the impact it had on closing the drivers’ title race up demonstrated, we could be looking at a radically different playing field once the WRC’s fast gravel summer has been and gone.