Toyota’s GR Yaris Rally2 got its first taste of snow against the clock on last weekend’s Arctic Lapland Rally.
As it turns out, the car also got its first taste of victory, with Mikko Heikkilä sliding his way to a class win by 7.3 seconds over reigning champion Teemu Asunmaa and his Škoda Fabia RS.
Jari-Matti Latvala, in between stints at the wheel of his Toyota Celica (with which he finished 20th overall), paid close attention to the competitiveness of the Japanese brand’s new cars during the weekend.
So what was the Toyota team principal’s verdict on the GR Yaris Rally2’s maiden triumph?
“Mikko Heikkilä did an amazing job, we are so proud of his driving, but also now we can see that the performance is there with the car,” said Latvala after the event. “Of course Monte Carlo was our first rally, there were some good moments, but also some difficulties. You want to know the level where you are, but Monte is difficult because of the conditions.
“Now, in this kind of fast event, you are not able to win unless you have the performance.”
That performance in Toyota’s new weapon didn’t just come at the hands of 2022 Finnish Rally Champion Heikkilä; there were three GR Yarises in the top four in Lapland. For Latvala, the result is a strong sign that the Yaris will be a WRC2 contender when the WRC heads to Sweden next week.
“[The results on Arctic Rally] are encouraging,” commented the Toyota team boss, “because looking towards Sweden now, our drivers have been getting really good feedback and getting the confidence with the driving. So all-in-all, it’s been a really good and important event in many ways looking towards the next WRC event.”
“We can now prove that our GR Rally2 is competitive in the Rally2 class, so that is a really promising thing.”
The strong speed shown by the Yaris Rally2 on the snow and ice of Finland comes in contrast to the car’s pace on asphalt on the WRC season-opening Monte Carlo Rally, where Sami Pajari finished as top Toyota, almost five minutes off Yohan Rossel’s WRC2-winning pace.
For Toyota technical director Tom Fowler, the gap from his so-called “baby Rally1 car” to the front of the field wasn’t cause for concern, given the specific challenge that the Monte poses.
“We’re really happy with [the car],” Fowler told DirtFish during the Monte weekend. “Of course, Rally2 is a very hard category in WRC, with a lot of good drivers, a lot of good cars that have been developed over the years.
“We need to continue to develop the car and continue to see the big picture, because it’s a car that’s developed for seasons of rallying in all different championships. So we can’t read too much into one Monte Carlo.”
Despite changing pretty much every setting on his Toyota in search of more speed across Monte’s four days, GR Yaris Rally2 driver Stéphane Lefebvre was also keen to downplay the car’s struggles during the event.
“It was a new challenge for me,” Lefebvre told DirtFish after finishing fifth in WRC2. “We start from zero this weekend and we improve a lot. I’m quite sure the potential of the car is very strong. I missed some test days before [the rally] to be on a good setting, but finally we see some good points of the car and that was important.”
The former Citroën driver offers a unique perspective for Toyota, having had plenty of experience in what is arguably the best Rally2 car around on Tarmac – the Citroën C3. Having now sampled the GR Yaris’ capabilities, Lefebvre is confident that the category’s newest machine can be a winner on Tarmac too.
“For me the struggle of the weekend was turning in the long corners, [not getting what] I want from the front end,” reasoned the ex-Citroën factory driver, “and sometimes on the fast corners I lost a bit of confidence. It’s just some small things, but at this level some small things are a big gap.”
“I know the potential of the car. It’s not frustrating because it’s a new package, we have a lot of work. [But] I’m quite sure we can also be faster than Citroën, because I know very well that car.”
The man tasked with steering that development work is the aforementioned Fowler; the engineering brain behind Toyota’s Yaris WRC and Rally1 cars which together have won five drivers’ titles and four manufacturers’ titles since the Japanese brand returned the championship in 2017. As you’d expect, he’s a man with a plan.
“The plan, of course, is to support our customers by continuing to develop the car in different ways,” confirmed Fowler. “Most important is on the reliability side, as you generate more cars there will be issues, we have to accept that, it’s just life. We’ll take all of those issues and understand if there’s something that we can do to make things better for the future.
“Of course, the requirements of every rally that all of our customers will do will feed back information as to things that the car might need, and so we will develop those products as part of the package to set the car up.
“The overall development of the car for the future will follow the regulations. Rally2 has its own joker and car-upgrade cycles which we intend to follow to keep our customers at the top of the championships they want to drive in.”