Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala has explained the reasons for promoting Takamoto Katsuta to the main Toyota Gazoo Racing team for the 2023 World Rally Championship to share a GR Yaris Rally1 with Sébastien Ogier.
Katsuta made his WRC debut in 2019 on Rally Germany where he scored a point for finishing 10th, but since 2021 he has been a full-time driver in rallying’s top class.
Although he initially gained a bit of a reputation for crashing – particularly at the end of 2020 – Katsuta scored his first podium on last year’s Safari Rally Kenya and looked to have built a good bit of momentum before a litany of forced co-driver changes upset his rhythm and resulted in a disastrous second half to 2021.
But this year, scoring manufacturer points for the Toyota Next Generation team for the first time, Katsuta has been ruthlessly consistent with just one non-finish all year in New Zealand – giving him the best consistency record of the entire field across the season. He also scored two further podiums in Kenya and Japan.
Toyota had been set to keep its same lineup of drivers – Kalle Rovanperä, Elfyn Evans, Ogier and Esapekka Lappi – next year but Lappi’s move to Hyundai created a vacancy alongside Ogier to share the third car for half of the season.
Latvala confirmed that “yes I received phone calls and emails about the position” but the team “were looking that Taka was ready to take that step up, and we were very confident and happy with this”.
Katsuta will therefore complete a full 2023 season – half of it for the main Toyota team when Ogier is absent, but dropping back to drive a fourth car when Ogier is present.
“If you look at the season in 2022, Taka has been probably the most consistent driver,” Latvala reasoned.
“He had only one rally where he didn’t score points, that was New Zealand where he went off, all the other events he has been on the points, and taking two podiums.
“So for me, the consistency is the most important part of what we need for the third car, because the one, two cars, they’re Kalle and Elfyn, are doing full season, they are fighting for the drivers’ championship.
“But those who are on the third car can’t have a chance for the drivers’ championship, so we need them to be consistent, to bring the points, in case something happens on the first two cars.
“We have no team orders, but it’s just that the mindset when you think about it is that you need a driver who can be consistently in that position. And Taka has proved that he is consistent.”
Asked when that decision was made, Latvala said the team had an idea before Rally Japan but Katsuta’s third place finish – which helped save face for Toyota given Hyundai scored a 1-2 result on its home turf – was absolute confirmation.
“Before the Rally Japan, we started to have quite a clear vision about it, which is the driver lineup,” said Latvala.
“But Taka’s result, the third position does prove that our plans are correct. So this was the plan, it was very clear, but of course we wanted to know just the confirmation.
“But when Taka is on the podium, then it was absolutely clear that’s our lineup for the next season.”Katsuta said: “Of course I’m really excited to join the main team, which was one of my targets also.
“But of course I can see that there is going to be lots of challenges, and lots of pressures, so I really need to perform well more than this year. But I’m really, let’s say, confident to prove that I can be part of the main team next year.
“I try to do my best, of course, and I try to be quicker, especially which is – where I feel confident on rallies like Portugal and Finland and Estonia. So this is one of my targets and I am really excited for that.
“I’m quite surprised, how really quickly it’s [the driver market] changed in the last few months. But yeah, one of my biggest surprises this season, let’s say,” he added.
“But yeah still, I got more motivation for next year, and this special opportunity does not happen so often so I must say thank you so much for giving me this amazing opportunity for the TGR World Rally Team.
And also for all the engineers and mechanics and team-mates.”
Katsuta’s first rally scoring points for Toyota is expected to be February’s Rally Sweden.