The long-awaited return of Rally Japan to the World Rally Championship provided plenty of drama – and while there were many positives coming out of the rally, there were also clearly some issues to be addressed.
The driver and manufacturers’ titles had already been sewn up before the WRC circus headed to the Land of the Rising Sun. But a first WRC event in Japan since 2010 was always going to be special, regardless.
Hyundai managed to spoil the party on Toyota’s home ground with a 1-2 finish, gaining a modicum of revenge for its defeat in both title races. Toyota meanwhile could still celebrate as Takamoto Katsuta stood on the WRC podium in front of his home fans in Toyota city.
Rain on the final day further spiced up the action in what had already been a dramatic event on tight, twisty Tarmac stages.
In reality, there had been a little bit too much drama.
From Dani Sordo’s scary fire which took more than an hour for the emergency services to reach, and the lack of a safety cordon around the wreck, to a non-competing car and a man on a bicycle entering the stages.
The FIA launched an investigation into a “serious breach” of safety and SS13 became the third stage to be canceled after a delay while an updated safety plan was put in place, with support from the WRC task force.
As a result of the numerous incidents, Rally Japan’s 2023 edition is expected to run under a yellow card.
The FIA’s rally safety guidelines state that: “A yellow card can be given by the Rally Commission to an event organizer/ASN if a serious lack of safety in rallies is observed and upon a proposal from the Closed Road Commission.”
Speaking to DirtFish in Japan, FIA rally director Andrew Wheatley explained: “Effectively, the yellow card system is in place to allow a safety task force to support the organizers. A yellow card is a comfort blanket around the organizers to make sure that there is somebody to support every element that they will then undertake in terms of safety.
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“The reality is that the yellow card will instigate a process that’s very similar to the task force, but it’s more regulated. So, basically, they have to achieve targets to be able to stay on track in the run up to the event; and then during the event, they get not only supported but checked and assessed.”
Asked if further similar issues next year could lead to Rally Japan losing its place on the calendar, Wheatley said: “That would be escalated through the Closed Road Safety Commission, and fundamentally nobody would want to come to an event that had endemic safety issues.
“I don’t think that’s what we’ve got here. I don’t think we have fundamental issues with the safety plan or the process that’s being undertaken.”
Having taken so long for Rally Japan’s return to the WRC to come to fruition, there is a clear desire to solve the issues that were experienced on this year’s edition and ensure the event becomes a pillar of the calendar.
“I think this rally has the potential to be one of the iconic events of the championship,” added Wheatley.
“The fact that we are based in a city that’s the home of one of the world’s largest motor manufacturers, in the country that has a good percentage of the world’s automotive industry.
“We met today representatives of pretty much all the Japanese manufacturers, who are here in the service park. They’re looking, seeing, watching, enjoying the experience. That’s exactly what we need as we go forward.
“I think the fact that the event also has some really tricky, challenging stages, in fantastic scenery [also counts in its favor]. It deserves its place in the world championship.”
What Wheatley has seen so far suggests that the Rally Japan organizer will work with the FIA and do all they can to ensure the event has a bright future in the WRC.
“Every rally is only as strong as its weakest link,” he said. “The perspective I’ve now got working in the organizational side is you cannot believe the amount of energy that the organizers expend in trying to run these events.”