After a season as perfect as Toyota’s 2023 World Rally Championship, there was only really one way to end it: with a win.
But why settle for the top step of the podium when you can lock out all three?
This year’s Rally Japan was one of the most demanding events in recent memory – and that’s saying something given how tough the trip to Central European Rally proved to be – but Toyota’s three masters delivered the perfect performance and dream result to cap off the year.
Here’s how Elfyn Evans, Sébastien Ogier and Kalle Rovanperä brought home a 1-2-3 in Toyota’s own backyard:
In a stadium made for football, last year was something of an own goal. All that space inside Toyota City’s 44,000-seater, wasted 12 months ago, was put to the best use possible this time around. Thursday evening’s side-by-side superspecial put plenty of fans on the edge of those seats.
The show was exceptional, the atmosphere even better – not least when local hero Takamoto Katsuta took to the stage. Sadly for the local hero, the story line was somewhat spoiled by Thierry Neuville, who picked up where he left Japan last year: out front.
Much as the crews, teams and fans had a ball on Thursday night, all eyes were on Friday morning and the potential for an absolute deluge. Through the recce, the day one weather was a running theme. It was coming. And it was coming badly.
As the cars headed into the Toyota City service at half-five on Friday morning, there was a sense of foreboding. The blanket of darkness would lift, but the bouncing rain was set to stay. At least one section of the opening stage proper would be bone dry – the tunnel part of Isegami’s Tunnel. Such optimism wasn’t welcomed by anybody and the Rally1 drivers’ universal choice of Pirelli’s wet tire reaffirmed the thinking that this was a day to survive.
Arriving at the end of SS2 somewhat ashen-faced, that was precisely Kalle Rovanperä’s thinking. First man through, he was still wide-eyed at what he’d seen.
“Central European Rally was nothing compared to that,” he smiled thinly. “For sure, we’re going to see some issues.”
Eighteen minutes after the Finn had launched his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 onto the event’s longest stage (Isegami’s Tunnel, 14.71 miles), his team-mate Katsuta did the same thing. What happened next was quite extraordinary.
The Japanese went three seconds per mile faster than the world champion.
I’ll say that again: three seconds per mile faster than the world champion. In the same three miles, he’d lifted 21.4s out of Esapekka Lappi, directly in front of him.
Taka was flying. Split two and he was flying even higher, 18.8s up on Kalle at 5.78 miles. Not long after that split a fast left led into a braking area for a slower right-hander. At the crucial moment, the surface changed from the shockingly slippery to the totally Teflon. The Yaris locked up, turned left and headed for the trees. The damage to the front-right was significant, but not rally ending. Katsuta cobbled together a fix and picked his way through the rest of the stage, 2m30s down.
What might have been. His face, body language and entire demeanor said everything: hero to zero and he was broken.
If it was any consolation, Adrien Fourmaux and Dani Sordo both fell foul of the same corner, dropping their Ford Puma and Hyundai i20s alongside each other into a river alongside the road.
Rarely had Rovanperä been so right about anything.
Elfyn Evans tip-toed through the stage, finishing with a slight shake of the head. Desperately trying to compute the previous 20 minutes and 17.8 seconds of his life, he was thrown a further curveball when he discovered he had gone half a minute faster than Rovanperä and would lead Sébastien Ogier’s sister Yaris by 3.8s heading onto SS3.
Now, anybody who thought stage two had been interesting was in for a serious wake-up call in Inabu Dam. Heavy rain for heavier. And then a bit heavier.
Aquaplaning was everywhere, with the effect heightened further by drivers being unable to actually see where they we water was carrying them – so bad were the misted screens.
Stopping after the stage, Evans made his feelings clear.
“You just couldn’t see,” he said. “It’s all s**t.”
All s**t except for his 26-second lead. He’d demonstrated his innate ability to find grip on wet asphalt and gone 10s faster than anybody.
Thierry Neuville was next up. Looking into the car’s co-driver’s side, the usually smiley Martijn Wydaeghe was anything but. He looked shell-shocked as he sat there and shook his head.
“The conditions were really dangerous,” said Neuville. “We shouldn’t be driving in them. I’ve done a lot of rallies, but I’ve never been as scared as this morning.”
The FIA and the organizer listened to the drivers, looked to the still-leaden skies and did the decent thing, cancelling stage four.
Back to service and time to regroup. The rain was definitely easing after lunch and Katsuta and Neuville were the men on the move.
With his Yaris back to its fully functioning best, Taka set about the stages in some style. Yes, his hopes had gone for the win he’d dreamed of, but there was nothing to stop him showing just what he could do in his own backyard.
As disappointing as he was through the morning, he was utterly brilliant through the afternoon, reeling off three successive stage wins.
Toyota technical director Tom Fowler praised Katsuta’s afternoon, saying: “He’s come back from what happened this morning and won all three stages – and he’s done that while the rally is still alive. This is not winning stages while Sunday driving, this is Friday, traditionally the most intense day of the event. He’s won every stage he’s completed with the car in working order.”
Neuville was similarly inspired on SS5, hauling 15s out of Evans’ advantage. But that hero-to-zero theme wasn’t done with. He dropped the Hyundai on the first corner in SS6.
Explaining the accident, Neuville told DirtFish: “I had too much energy into the compression. It bottomed and kicked me out of the line and there was no real space for going wide. Immediate stop.”
Wydaeghe denied the pair had been pushing too hard on the afternoon’s opening stage.
“The rhythm was not crazy [in SS5],” Wydaeghe told DirtFish. “At the finish, we actually said we didn’t know if this is OK. It’s hard to say if there was a good rhythm or not. With these conditions, it’s difficult.”
An Ogier spin in stage five testified to those continued complicated conditions. Slight damage to the Frenchman’s door and a handful of seconds dropped didn’t appear too significant, but when the FIA caught sight of the Toyota at the end of the day, the team had some work to do.
Toyota technical director Tom Fowler explained the situation to DirtFish.
“During the full inspection of the car back in the technical zone here in service, it was deemed with the FIA that we needed to make a repair to the chassis. There was some damage to the space frame where the FIA required us to exchange a tube – which is a really big job.”
The team cut out the damaged tube and welded in a new section of steel – and did it in record time. But Ogier still left service six minutes late and was thus handed a one-minute time penalty. With that minute added to Ogier’s second-placed tally, he would head into the weekend just 16 rather than 76 seconds ahead of Rovanperä.
“It’s going to be an interesting Saturday,” smiled Fowler.
Up front, Ogier’s penalty left Evans defending a whopping 1m49.9s advantage.
As you’d expect, he wasn’t taking anything for granted.
“There’s still a very long way to go,” he said, “and tomorrow’s conditions will be interesting – there can still be a lot of water around. It’s tricky. We have to find a rhythm and a pace to go quickly enough to keep the margin, but not take the big risks.”
Fortunately for Evans, that tight rope looked like it would be dry, with a sunny weekend predicted.
Beyond the top three, only Katsuta (ninth), Esapekka Lappi (seventh) and Ott Tänak (eighth) remained of the Rally1 runners. Hyundai man Lappi’s day was largely trouble-free but, by his own admission, too slow. Tänak’s Puma was plagued by electrical trouble through the afternoon.
All of that left the door open for recently crowned WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen to enjoy an extended purple patch. He rocketed his Toksport Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 into an amazing fourth overall with Grégoire Munster giving M-Sport something to smile about – he returned to a Fiesta Rally2 and ended day one just 4.8s down on Mikkelsen in fifth.
As one enormously experienced WRC aficionado put it in a message: “Today might just have been the most boring day since the Olympus Rally in 1988.”
How rude. American rallying is never boring.
But Saturday wasn’t exactly a thriller. Then again, even a thriller would have seemed comparatively dull in comparison to the near-unbelievable storyline Friday followed. The good news for the crews was that – for the main – the rain had stopped. The sun came out and cars were spotted without Pirelli’s heavily treaded wets beneath them for the first time.
Then it snowed on stage 14. Nobody really saw that coming.
Arriving at the second run of Lake Mikawako, Evans was a happy man. He’d shipped a handful of seconds Ogier’s way, but things were very much in control. He’d even enjoyed back-to-back fastest times on a brace of mid-day Okazaki City stages.
Sitting waiting to go onto the day’s penultimate stage of significance, the leader noticed something on the screen.
“It was just starting,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. We knew there was going to be rain in the area, but we didn’t expect it to come so quickly – and we didn’t expect it when we were sitting on the start line.”
Fortunately for him, his nearest rival – Ogier – was only a mile or two up the road and the rain was catching him too. But then, as the road climbed and the ambient dipped, a change happened that nobody was expecting.
“Snow!” said Ogier at the finish of a stage where he’d lost all-but half a minute to the still flying Katsuta. The early cars on the road emerged largely unscathed from winter’s arrival on Japan’s mainland.
“We thought we’d seen it all from the weather on this event,” said the Toyota star. “This was crazy.”
Evans was similarly slack-jawed at the stop line.
“I thought we could lose a minute,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that weather.”
Ultimately, the frozen white curved ball didn’t catch anybody out – but it did offer a graphic demonstration that anything is possible in this sport. Evans remained very much on his toes for the remainder of the day. He did, however, remain 1m15s ahead with just Sunday to play.
Ogier maintained a 25-second buffer from third-placed Rovanperä. Neither driver had anything to report – especially the recently crowned world champ.
“It’s just about driving,” he said. “This event still has something to give when the snow came on SS14, but otherwise we just need to get to the finish. I tried some things in the last [spectator] stage. The time was not good, but I don’t care – it was nice to see a lot of fans out there.”
Another stellar day in his Yaris allowed Katsuta to rock five more stage wins. That speed moved him up the order to sixth, where he sat staring impatiently at the back of Tänak and Lappi.
Now grinning from ear-to-ear and with Friday morning’s heart breaker confined to the very furthest corner of his mind, he accepted the praise from team DirtFish.
“Thank you,” he said. “It’s been a good day. I wanted to push as much as I can. Of course there has been some difficulty is the condition, where it was changing but still the car was working well and I was managing pretty OK. The times were good.”
But would it be possible to leapfrog a 40-odd second deficit to turn sixth to fourth and a dream 1-2-3-4 lockout for Toyota in Toyota City.
There was that trademark giggle.
“For sure,” he said, “it’s a big motivation. The only thing I can do now is get that result for Toyota. I lost the opportunity to fight for the victory on day one. Now I just focus on the very good result for the team that’s the most important thing for me at the moment
“Esapekka and Ott are not going to be easy to catch, they’re both going well – but I still have a little bit of pace left over…”
While both Lappi and Tänak wanted to defend their positions, neither appeared ready for a tooth and nail scrap. Fastest on the final day’s final superspecial, Lappi offered: “Maybe I needed 22 superspecials!”
The humor was infectious. Emerging from a snowy stage 14, Tänak grinned: “Merry Christmas.”
Two stages later and he was further sold on the superspecial.
“That was a great event for rallying,” he said. “The crowd was great.”
Saturday’s losers were WRC2 stars Mikkelsen and Munster who slipped down the leaderboard to seventh and eighth on Saturday night. Drying conditions and demisted windshields allowed the Rally1 cars to stretch their legs and work a way by the Rally2 machinery.
In the end, the snow stayed away. Or at least it confined itself to the hills and mountains surrounding Sunday’s roads just south of Nakatsugawa.
So, 2023, one more day. Up front, Evans was very much looking for something straightforward, nothing too challenging, consistent grip and a nice clean road to conclude the season. He got the exact opposite.
The roads were filthy, with grip changing from one corner to the next – he and Scott Martin would remain on the edge of their seats for six stages. But they did it.
“It felt like we were at walking pace in some places today,” he smiled. “There was just no grip. It was tricky: yes, we had a decent margin, but in some places, if somebody pushed really hard they could take a lot of time, so you had to be aware of that and close that one off.
“With the weather and the conditions, it’s felt like a long weekend, but this is an incredible result for the team: a 1-2-3 at home is fantastic.”
Incredibly, across the final day’s six stages (with no service) and 52.24 competitive miles, Evans, Ogier and Rovanperä were split by just 5.9s as the three GR Yaris Rally1s were delivered for a formation finish back in their home town of Toyota City.
But what about the fourth car? What about Katsuta, the local hero charging back up from sixth to hopefully cement total domination?
He made fifth.
Starting the day 14.9s off the back of his friend and rival Tänak, he was helped out by the Estonian’s slip-up first thing.
“Win it or bin it and I tried to bin it,” said the Puma driver, who now had just 9.6s between him and Katsuta after overshooting a corner.
First run of Ena City down and all but four-tenths of that had gone.
“We have nothing to fight against Taka,” said Tänak, “we can’t do anything.”
Arriving at the tire zone which split the two loops of stages, the Toyota driver was up to fifth and hunting Lappi for the 16.2s which would give him his result.
Quickest through the third Sunday stage, Taka grinned as he recalled a slip-sliding stage win: “It was like Mario Karting! I was using the barriers – it’s like I was in Sweden using the snowbanks!”
Lappi was looking like a lamb to the slaughter. He couldn’t find any confidence with the i20. He needed to make a change. Working on the car in the tire zone, he took one last roll of the dice to stay ahead of Katsuta and to put a spanner in the wheel of Toyota’s ultimate result.
It worked. Immediately. He went second fastest, pulled 10s out of his rival and all-but ended Katsuta’s charge back up the field.
“This morning,” said Lappi, arriving at the finish in fourth, “I was not really satisfied, I felt I was really driving on the limit of the grip and I couldn’t match the times of Katsuta, especially on the wet tires.
“At the tire fitting, we made a change with the suspension set-up just to try something else, and it worked. In the end, I think we found something at the right time to stop him, which was important for that fight.”
Winning 10 from 22 stage wins was enormously impressive from the Japanese, but missing fourth compiled his disappointment from that first stage on Friday.
“I have to say a big thanks to the fans,” he said, “and yes, the speed has been good – and I have to do more of this next season – but I am still very disappointed.”
Katsuta’s frustration and regret sat at odds with just about every other emotion in Toyota. Twelve months ago, Hyundai had shown it the way home. This time around, Evans led a masterclass in delivering the perfect end to a perfect season.