Takamoto Katsuta’s promotion to a full factory drive at Toyota is great news for him. It really is. But it might be less so for World Rally Championship fans.
Katsuta’s promotion for 2023 will mean that on rounds that Sébastien Ogier isn’t contesting next year, the Rally1 field will comprise of one fewer car than this year, given that – as it stands – Toyota will not be back-filling Katsuta’s position in its WRC Challenge program.
Losing one car might not seem like a huge deal, but when the Rally1 field is fairly limited already, then there’s every chance it could have a considerable effect on the competition next year, especially when you consider Katsuta’s hit rate at finishing rallies.
However, how much the Rally1 field will be affected will come down to the extent of Ogier’s program next year.
Toyota has already confirmed that on rounds Ogier is contesting Katsuta will run a fourth Yaris GR Rally1 car, which will inevitably help plug some of the gap.
But on Rally Japan Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala stated that the eight-time WRC champion will at most compete for half of the year, while Ogier himself has said that it’s likely his program will mirror this season which would equate to six rounds.
So that potentially leaves around seven rounds (if the calendar remains the same for 2023) where Toyota might only have three cars running, rather than four.
Given Hyundai will have three cars on events and assuming M-Sport runs the same number of cars, it means that when Ogier isn’t competing there could, on average, be only be nine cars fighting at the very front.
If every driver completes each event without a hitch, that still leaves healthy competition fighting for wins and podiums. But this is rallying. That never happens. Just look at Japan.
Throw in a few retirements and a puncture or two and suddenly there’s a very depleted field fighting for the top three, and it won’t take many either.
It’s not gone unnoticed that Rally2’s Grégoire Munster finished seventh overall in Japan, with the remaining three positions in the top 10 also being occupied by WRC2 competitors.
In fact, on seven occasions this year, WRC2 cars have finished in the top seven, with Hayden Paddon and Stéphane Lefebvre finishing sixth in New Zealand and Belgium respectively.
Take Katsuta’s car out of the equation on Japan, and that would have been half the top 10 not occupied by top-tier machinery.
With Rally1 already a small class compared to WRC2, it can ill afford to lose another car without the overall status of the competition being harmed.
Nobody wants to watch only four or five Rally1 cars finishing the rally in a battle at the front. Small fields like that are going to turn fans off.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Toyota has hatched a plan that could prevent those issues from surfacing. And if it does happen, it could pay dividends for the manufacturer, not only from a championship battle perspective, but also from a commercial one.
With Toyota not looking likely to add a driver to its WRC Challenge Program, it has come up with an alternative. As a way to ensure the manufacturer will be running a fourth car as often as possible next year, it is going to make a car available to hire.
And with the Yaris GR Rally1 being the class of the field this season, it will not be short of drivers wanting to hop into the car for selected rounds in 2023.
“When Ogier is not driving and Taka is in the factory team, this is now clear that our driver lineup is for the what we go with the season, but of course we have been considering that the events where we have a fourth car sort of available, we can consider renting option,” Latvala confirmed.
“But only on renting, nothing else. So if there’s somebody interested to rent the car, we are looking at options. But at this point we don’t currently [know] that it will happen, but we are of course collecting data if there are drivers who are interested in that.”
This is a win-win situation for everyone.
The Rally1 competition remains the same, WRC itself benefits from having at least 10 competitors in its top-flight class, and all the while Toyota earns itself some extra cash that it wouldn’t otherwise have had.
Hiring the car out also gives Toyota a chance to evaluate some new drivers and establish whether any of them could have a future with the manufacturer. After all, nothing remains the same forever. Who loses?
Not having a fourth Toyota on each round wouldn’t be the biggest disaster the WRC has ever faced, but it could make enough impact for some corners to further question why they’re continuing to persist with Rally1 when making Rally2 the top tier would generate vast amounts more competition than the championship has had for a while.