This was meant to be the year that Takamoto Katsuta took the next step in his rallying career. Being promoted to the main three-car Toyota team for the rallies that Sébastien Ogier is not contesting was a sign of the trust the manufacturer is placing in him.
Katsuta is within touching distance of fulfilling the goal of the Toyota WRC Challenge Program. The Japanese manufacturer wanted a Japanese driver to pilot its car and be fighting at the front of the WRC field.
It has been a long road of steady step-by-step progress for the 30-year-old. Even now, not being nominated for manufacturers’ points on every round reduces the pressure on his shoulders and allows him to continue to build experience.
But so far, 2023 hasn’t been going very well for Katsuta in the GR Yaris Rally1. Sixth on the Monte Carlo Rally, some three-and-a-half minutes down on his winning team-mate Sébastien Ogier, is his only points-scoring finish in the first three rounds of the season.
Katsuta crashed on Rally Sweden (and his warm-up winter rally in Finland) – his only event so far in the manufacturer-nominated car – and did so again on Rally México.
It’s a far cry from the consistent, reliable performances he was putting in last year. They were ideally suited to the driver of a manufacturer’s third car – there to bring home a decent points haul when either of its top two drivers hit trouble.
Is Katsuta letting increased expectations affect his performance? And is his run of crashes putting even more pressure on him?
Let’s not forget, we’ve been here before.
In the first half of the 2021 season, Katsuta scored six consecutive top-six finishes, including his first WRC podium on the Safari Rally. Then a heavy landing in Estonia sidelined co-driver Daniel Barritt and, with the added strain of adapting to new co-drivers, Katsuta got stuck in a rut of accidents over the next three events.
Go back further, and a similar thing had happened in 2020. Katsuta rolled out of both Estonia and Italy, then hit a wall on the opening stage of the Monza Rally season finale.
Each time Katsuta reset, rebuilt his confidence and bounced back, ultimately becoming the WRC’s most consistent driver last year.
There’s no doubt that becoming anything but that so far this year will have knocked Katsuta’s confidence back a touch. But Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala reckons he has plenty of time to rebuild it – starting with Rally Croatia later this month when Ogier will once again occupy the third seat.
“Of course, it’s affecting for the self-confidence when you have two accidents,” Latvala told DirtFish. “It takes your self-confidence down.
“But the good thing is now that we know that he has a full season and we have rallies to come and we can gain the confidence back.
“[Ogier competing in Croatia] means good for Taka that he doesn’t need to take pressure for that. So in this situation it’s also very good for our team and for Taka that he can take it, let’s say, in a way that he can go without the pressure in the event.”
Katsuta himself admits he’s lacking confidence right now.
“I feel so sorry for the team and Aaron [Johnston, co-driver],” he said after going off on a high-speed section on Friday morning in México.
“Everything was OK and I was just trying step by step to get feeling but obviously the first time here is very, very difficult.
“Even when you are careful, there are so many things: rocks, concrete, some wider parts, which look easy on the recce but when you come in with a rally car these kind of things can happen and you have a big surprise. It’s experience for me.”
Katsuta restarted the rally on Saturday and gained valuable experience over the remaining two legs. But on unfamiliar stages, it was difficult to translate that into an immediate confidence boost.
Asked if he’d been able to put Friday’s off behind him, Katsuta said: “Of course, not fully behind me yet just because in México it has been very difficult for me and almost all the stages are new for me. And very difficult changes, conditions and grip level, especially this long stage [Otates] was very, very difficult.
“Upside down, like the condition was totally different at the beginning and end. So yeah, kind of a new experience for me because I’ve never done this kind of rally, a very strange combination of the stages. So that was definitely very helpful for the future.
“I was not able to trust 100% the car and grip and everything. So then you’re losing basically every corner, like one second, a few tenths which I had no chance.”
Katsuta finished sixth in Croatia last year. A similar result on this year’s event would provide a timely boost. He will not contest a local rally ahead of the event, so his preparation will be done outside the car.
“I need to focus for what I haven’t done [in México], he said, “like what I was missing. And then after that, I will do a little bit less and then prepare the pacenotes and things.”