Rally Japan 2023 isn’t an event the World Rally Championship drivers will be forgetting in a hurry.
In a way, the rally was all over on Friday, but that first leg packed more punch than most events do throughout an entire weekend.
Elfyn Evans and Toyota ultimately fly home with the trophies – the third and ninth of the season respectively – to cap off a hugely entertaining year.
Japan certainly provided plenty of food for thought for 2024 as well, but here’s what we learned from the event itself:
Evans’ 2024 title chances look strong
It’s perhaps an ironic statement to make given there were no championships on the line last weekend, but Elfyn Evans drove like a champion in Japan.
An overused phrase that may be, but every aspect of his performance – the blinding speed to grab the lead, composure to hold it and maturity to accept losing time thereafter – were that of a world champion.
That’s a status Evans has still yet to elevate himself to, but he really can’t be far away from it if he keeps driving like he did in Japan. Particularly now that we know both of his world champion team-mates won’t be around full-time next year.
Evans has never headed into a new season in better form, with 2023 statistically the Welshman’s best WRC season to-date in terms of rally wins (three) and championship points scored (216).
With this win also settling a score from last year’s final-day defeat, Evans couldn’t have asked for a better way to end the season.
Abiteboul will criticize Neuville when he needs to
Thierry Neuville is perceived to be the golden boy at Hyundai, so the last thing probably any of us expected was to hear his team principal Cyril Abiteboul be so openly critical about Neuville’s mistake on Friday afternoon.
“I was really impressed with his pace on the first stage of the afternoon, but then I think he was too much in a rush to get into the lead,” Abiteboul told DirtFish.
“It’s something that should’ve been managed better, it was one of those things where he was a bit too optimistic in his approach. It reminds me a little bit of what happened in Greece, when he was also in the lead.
“It is what it is.”
Abiteboul could have made his comments before a debrief with his driver – who apologized to his team – but his justification for the error was the damping on his Hyundai was too soft for the compression which led to him making a beeline for a tree. But it was nonetheless interesting for him to be so openly critical of Neuville when, with no world titles on the line anymore, he didn’t need to be.
In all likelihood it’s in keeping with Abiteboul’s style, who has certainly made a positive impact to Hyundai and the WRC as a whole. And will be music to the ears of a certain Hyundai-bound Estonian…
Sordo’s jinxed in Japan
You couldn’t really make this one up if you tried. Two times Dani Sordo has started this iteration of Rally Japan, and both times he has retired. But not only that, he retired on the exact same stage in both 2022 and 2023.
Talk about misfortune!
Sordo had slightly more control over his destiny this year (last year his i20 burnt to a crisp) as he slipped off the road, but in reality the Spaniard was simply a passenger as the ever-changing monsoon-like conditions made one particular right-hander an ice rink.
For proof, see Takamoto Katsuta’s issue and Adrien Fourmaux’s identical accident as to how difficult this corner suddenly became.
Fourmaux’s another who can count himself unlucky. It’s a shame both he, and we, didn’t get to learn more about what he can do nowadays in a Rally1 machine.
Munster’s becoming a convincing prospect
Let’s start this one off with an important caveat. Of all the rallies for Grégoire Munster to thrive on, Japan is one of the ones you’d back him on. Dirty, difficult asphalt is clearly his strong suit with so much experience on it back home.
But to be going toe-to-toe with the reigning WRC2 champion and only just missing out speed-wise was a huge statement of intent from the soon-to-be 25-year-old. It was just a shame that he ultimately let it slip by sliding off the road on a tightening right-hander.
Munster’s performance before then was eye-catching though, and proved two clear things: that the development to the new Ford Fiesta Rally2 really has worked wonders (Adrien Fourmaux already proved it but for another driver to do the same is massively important) and Munster’s used his time in Rally1 wisely.
He always said the aim of his two runs in a Puma was to return to WRC2 a faster and more knowledgeable driver, and that certainly appeared to be the case in Japan.
M-Sport’s driver lineup for 2024 is yet to be determined, and on this form it wouldn’t feel crazy to see Munster in a Puma a bit more regularly next term. He just needs to make sure he doesn’t make a habit of last-minute mistakes.
Katsuta can be consistently fast
Rally Japan 2023 will be registered as the ultimate ‘what might have been’ weekend for the affable Takamoto Katsuta, whose fifth place was brilliant but agonizing in equal measure.
Brilliant because his speed was sensational (and consistently so) but agonizing because were it not for that skirmish with the countryside on SS2, might Katsuta have won the rally?
Let’s not worry about the ifs, buts and maybes though and instead focus on the clear thing the Japanese driver proved on home ground – he can be a seriously fast rally driver.
We’ve seen glimpses of that in the past from Katsuta, but nothing like we saw in Japan. Determined to perform well at his home rally, Katsuta responded to that pressure beautifully, and registered a whopping 10 stage wins throughout the weekend – for context he had only won 15 prior to the start.
The next step will be to replicate this turn of speed on other rallies, but this was an extremely encouraging performance from Katsuta to end the season.
Lappi’s best in a part-time role
Immediately after the shakedown stage was over on Thursday morning, Hyundai issued a press release to confirm Esapekka Lappi’s presence in the 2024 lineup – albeit as a part-time driver instead.
The full-time campaign he enjoyed this year has instead gone to Hyundai’s re-hire Ott Tänak.
But ‘enjoy’ is perhaps the wrong word, as Lappi candidly admitted he actually requested a part-time program next season as he feels that will give him a much better work/life balance – something he holds very dear.
Good on him, and his performance in Japan perhaps proved why, even from a sporting sense, this could be the best move for the Finn.
It would be harsh to suggest Lappi could never be a world champion, but even he knows his chances aren’t as strong as some others. Japan was one of those rallies where Lappi was never really in the reckoning for the win, and he looked dejected at times – although finished strongly to cling onto fourth from Katsuta.
But scaling back to a partial program means Lappi can compete on the rallies that suit him best (and as 2023 proved, there’s plenty of others) and arrive at each of them in a better headspace with a happier home life. Win-win.