What we learned from 2022 Rally Japan

The latest WRC season is done, but the season-closing event had intriguing pointers for the future for Evans and Hyundai


And with that, the 2022 World Rally Championship season is done. Thirteen rounds are successfully in the books, ending with last weekend’s first Rally Japan in 12 years.

Unfortunately not all aspects of the WRC’s Asian adventure could be described as positive – we’ll get to that later – but on the whole it was incredibly important for the WRC to expand its global footprint, and fantastic to see the passionate and respectful Japanese fans meet their heroes.

On the stages, Thierry Neuville stunned his naysayers to produce a masterful performance but it all just unraveled (yet again) for his long-term rival.

And that’s where we’ll start as we look back on what we learned from Rally Japan 2022:

Evans is making progress, but luck is deserting him

Perhaps the rally gods were actually doing Elfyn Evans a favor in Japan. Toyota had predicted that no rain would fall on the stages and he therefore headed into the final day without any wet compound tires, whereas close rival Thierry Neuville had packed two into his Hyundai.

The rain of course did fall, so Evans would’ve been powerless to fight Neuville. But he never even had the chance to find out as a puncture on the day’s second stage dumped him out of that fight.

It was a cruel, cruel blow for a driver who headed into the season as a favorite for the title but it ended it with just over half the points of the world champion. But it was particularly cruel given Evans appeared to make great gains on his big 2022 deficit: adapting to the GR Yaris Rally1.


Sure, Evans “lost the feeling” from the front of the car on Saturday miles, but this was a far more confident and comfortable Evans to the one we saw three weeks earlier in Spain. Whatever work he had done – which he wasn’t willing to share with us, despite our best efforts – to tune himself to the car, it looked to have worked.

He deserved more from Japan, but that improved pace should at least offer Evans a crumb of comfort looking towards next year.

Hyundai will challenge in 2023

It’s really quite remarkable that in a season that started with nobody fancying it for any wins at all, Hyundai has broken its record for WRC wins in a single season in 2022. Neuville’s Japanese victory was the marque’s fifth of the year, beating its previous best of four from 2017 and ’19.

What makes that accolade all the more special is that Toyota effectively has two home rallies now in the WRC – Finland and Japan – and Hyundai defeated it on both. That’s a tonic that’ll sweeten what’s been, if we’re honest, a turbulent year everyone inside the team will be glad to see the back of.

But Neuville’s performance in Japan must provide a great source of hope and optimism for 2023. Hyundai looks to have recovered the time it lost in 2021 with the late development of the i20 N Rally1, and throughout the year the car has greatly improved to the point where it looks like it could be a consistent threat for Toyota (and M-Sport Ford with the right drivers in the car) next season.

What’s abundantly clear is that the team cannot be in the same disarray that has been in 2022. Just when the car has looked to come good, the unit running and driving it has crumbled. But this week should give us plenty more news on how Hyundai will look next year – a year where it looks in a far better position to fight than the season that’s just passed.

Rally1 cars burn out quickly

The clear negative from Japan for Hyundai of course was the almost immediate loss of Dani Sordo who pulled over on SS2 and basically had to just stand and watch as his i20 N Rally1 burnt to the ground.

Oliver Solberg’s Hyundai had caught fire after a spin into a tree in Croatia, but that was a blaze that the crew was able to control. Japan was therefore the first time we saw the new-for-2022 Rally1 cars properly light up and be turned to ash.

There’ll be more on this here on DirtFish in the coming week, but it’s fair to say lessons will be learned from how this fire unfolded and how the situation was dealt with – even if Hyundai isn’t going to be able to discover how it started.

The most obvious takeaways are that battery fires are difficult to deal with and perhaps require updated extinguishers to tackle them, and the increased amount of carbonfiber on this year’s cars make them very susceptible to burning.

Add all that together, and it’s clear that if these cars catch alight it’s very, very difficult to prevent a conflagration.

Rovanperä’s not happy on technical roads

To his credit, the world champion never really hid it. Kalle Rovanperä was of course happy to compete on his team’s home soil, but he never pretended he was a massive fan of the nature of the Japanese stages.

Leading after Friday’s opener, it looked like business as usual. The #69 Toyota was top of the leaderboard and firmly in the fight yet again. And although he dropped to third overnight, he was just a whisker short of Evans and Neuville.

I already knew before that this is not my style of road so much Kalle Rovanperä

The mistake that led to him kissing a rockface just a mile or so into Saturday derailed his weekend rather rapidly – and can perhaps be chalked up as the sort of mistake a driver will naturally make when their season goal has already been achieved. But even had he won, you sense Rovanperä wouldn’t have been utterly pumped up by the occasion. The stages simply didn’t suit him.

Before the weekend his assessment of the stages was: “It’s so narrow and slow, so that’s something I don’t normally like. I don’t like these narrow and technical roads, it’s not really flowy.”

And afterwards the rhetoric hadn’t changed: “I didn’t really seem to enjoy the stages so much which I already knew before that this is not my style of road so much.”

Give Rovanperä a rally to win and he’ll always give it his utmost. But we can’t, seemingly, expect him to always be smiling while doing it.

Finland really is back on top of the rallying world

Rovanperä has of course delivered plenty of smiles to his home nation this year by ending Finland’s 20-year wait for a World Rally champion. But plenty of his compatriots have helped hammer home the message too: Finland really is back on its perch as the rallying nation at the moment.

Sami Pajari is an obvious future star – and showed that yet again in Spain – even if he missed out on the Junior WRC title to Estonian Robert Virves, but Lauri Joona provided some Rally3 title success for Finland with this year’s WRC3 title.

And now Emil Lindholm has made it a triple with an expertly judged drive in Japan to secure a well-earned WRC2 title.

Lindholm really is beginning to look like the real deal. The mistakes that so often used to creep in have vanished, and now he’s a driver that can turn up the wick but also balance that with risk management to get through a rally and convert the pace and promise into a result.

It’s a shame that topping the world in Rally2 doesn’t bring a guaranteed Rally1 drive with it, but Lindholm now has the opportunity to exert his authority over the field next year.

Andreas Mikkelsen was still the benchmark in WRC2 this year, but Lindholm now has the chance to command that same level of respect next year, building on a quite brilliant 2022.

Rally Japan must do better next year

We were all excited about the return to Rally Japan to rediscover this country and check out what the Tarmac stages would really be like, and there was plenty to like.


The landscape was gorgeous, the stages brilliantly demanding and more than worthy of their place in the world championship, and the commercial value for not just Toyota but Hyundai too was massive.

But the event must make advances in 2023, and big ones, to avoid being axed from rallying’s global tour.

Rally organizers can be afforded a certain degree of leeway when hosting a round of the WRC for the first time, given the endless nuances and complexity of the job, but what happened on SS4 this year was utterly unacceptable.

Speaking personally, I’ve been to national rallies where, as a member of the media with pre-agreed access, I’ve found it difficult to make it into certain locations. So there is simply no excuse for a civilian’s car being allowed to enter a live international rally stage unobstructed and create an incredibly dangerous situation that we all must be thankful didn’t cause any accident or injury.

It put a dampener on what should otherwise have been a brilliant weekend. Friday in general was a bit of a disaster with just two of the day’s six stages running entirely as planned. For some of the Rally2 cars, they didn’t even get a competitive run until SS5 on Friday afternoon.

The organizer will work hard to address these issues – that has always been the Japanese way. But it can be under no illusions that it must do better in 2023 to keep its place in the championship.