Rally Japan brought the curtain down on the 2023 World Rally Championship season – and what a way to do it.
Insanely challenging and unpredictable weather conditions ensured Japan was no easy way to finish the year, and that rewarded those who were willing to be patient and punished those who weren’t.
But who were the winners and losers from this chaotic rally? Luke Barry and James Bowen offer their verdict:
Masterclass. No other word feels more appropriate than that for Elfyn Evans’ Rally Japan victory, which perfectly atoned for the heartbreak of missing out 12 months earlier.
Finding more pace than anybody in the extremely treacherous conditions thrown up on Friday morning, a small overshoot was the only drama to speak of as Evans checked out into a near two-minute lead by the end of the first full day.
You could argue he was fortunate that team-mate Sébastien Ogier lost a minute as Toyota repaired his damaged rollcage hoop, but that was the legacy of a mistake Ogier himself made.
Once out front, Evans managed his advantage perfectly to claim a statement win as the scores reset to zero in just a couple of months’ time.
The dream 1-2-3 result at home was made a reality for the Japanese manufacturer, giving Toyota its redemption 12 months on from that defeat in its own backyard by arch rivals Hyundai.
After Thierry Neuville took himself out of contention on Friday afternoon, the three leading Toyotas just had to hold station to ensure a podium lockout. Evans, Ogier and Rovanperä each did the sensible thing, putting the team first and giving Toyota the headline it wanted so dearly.
Takamota Katsuta charging to fourth place on Sunday would have been the cherry on the top of the cake, but nonetheless the Japanese marque delivered a perfect end to a near-perfect WRC season.
There was some debate in the DirtFish camp as to whether Taka should make the winners or losers list here, but ultimately we felt his sheer pace, and climb back to fifth place, in the rally made him a winner despite the agony of Friday’s crash and the lingering thought of what might have been had he driven just a little slower through SS2.
Put simply, Katsuta showed speed on a level at which we have never seen from him before, and did so consistently across all four days in Japan.
His rally winning potential is now clear for all to see, and that’s a very exciting prospect heading in 2024. As Toyota got its Japan redemption this year, maybe Taka-san will get his next season. What a story that would be.
Was this a sign of just how competitive the updates to the Ford Fiesta Rally2 really are, or of the benefit of stepping up to Rally1 for the previous two rounds? Or both? Either way, this was a very, very strong performance from Grégore Munster – right until the moment it wasn’t.
Munster was a shoo-in for the winners’ column here before he slipped off the road three stages from home. It was a crying shame as it undid what was a really encouraging drive.
He paid a hefty price for a small mistake but has still shown great progression over the last few events, which is important as the 2024 driver market intensifies. But a second place in class went begging after an error that looked like it was avoidable.
Hyundai team principal Cyril Abiteboul suggested Thierry Neuville was rushing his pursuit of rally leader Elfyn Evans. Neuville himself countered that by suggesting the dampers were too soft so he bottomed out in the compression and therefore ran off and into the tree.
Whichever way you slice it, this was not the weekend Neuville and Hyundai were looking for. By their own admission, they came to Japan to win. Nothing else would do.
Could Neuville have won? Absolutely. Prior to his SS6 crash, he’d just stolen 15.5s from Evans to trail by only 10.5s. A repeat of last year’s battle looked to be on, only this time it was the Belgian who choked.
In the end it cost him very little as he wasn’t bothered about fighting Evans for second in the championship, but it’s not the manner in which he’d have liked to have headed into the short off-season.
In our Rally Japan form guide, I wrote that Dani Sordo only had a set of pacenotes to show for his 2022 trip east. Well, after crashing for the second year in a row on SS2, he now has just a slightly updated set of pacenotes for a rally that he has spent more time traveling to on a plane than he has actually driving his Hyundai i20 N in.
His accident could be put down to bad luck, with rain creating rivers on the road and causing Sordo to aquaplane off the stage and into a stream. Drivers are almost passengers in those kinds of conditions, and Adrien Fourmaux and Takamota Katsuta were also caught out at the same spot.
Whatever the case, Sordo surely won’t be asking Cyril Abiteboul for a return trip to Japan in 2024. Or at least, he might skip the Isagami’s Tunnel stage, which seems to be cursed for the Spaniard.
Handed what he called a ‘present’ by M-Sport following a strong season in Rally2, Adrien Fourmaux had barely even begun untying the bow before that present was then snatched away from him.
Caught out on exactly the same corner as Sordo, Fourmaux seemed optimistic that he would be able to restart the following day. But once M-Sport got the car back, it immediately saw that there was damage to the rollcage.
Just one completed superspecial stage was not what Fourmaux or the team had in mind for the weekend, denying the Frenchman the chance to re-acclimatize to a car many feel he will be back behind the wheel of next year.
Making his second appearance at Rally Japan in the WRC2 class, Heikki Kovalainen showed he’s taken a big step forward since last year. He was on track for a class podium, and had pulled out a gap of several minutes to WRC2 regular Kajetan Kajetanowicz throughout Saturday – an impressive achievement against a solid benchmark.
Transmission issues in his older-generation Škoda Fabia R5 cruelly struck on SS14, robbing him of third place, and the Finn was unable to restart the rally on Sunday.
It would be great to see what Kovalainen can do in some up-to-date Rally2 machinery, something he hinted during a bout of TV commentary might be coming for 2024.