The 13th and final round of the WRC 2023 season kicked off in Japan on November 16th. The Rally Japan, which started in Hokkaido in 2004 as a gravel rally, was dropped from the WRC calendar after 2010 due to sponsorship issues and environmental group opposition. It was slated to return in 2020 to coincide with the Tokyo Summer Olympics but was postponed due to COVID-19. The rally only became feasible in 2022 when the situation stabilized and overseas travel restrictions were lifted.
The rally’s revival brought significant changes. The gravel rally in the wilderness of Hokkaido transformed into a tarmac rally on the paved roads of Aichi and Gifu prefectures. Aichi Prefecture is well-known as the home of Toyota Motor Corporation, headquartered in Toyota City, east of Nagoya.
This year, the stage configuration slightly changed from the previous year, particularly the SSS1, which was set up in Toyota Stadium. Similar to stages seen in events like the Acropolis Rally of Greece, stadium stages allow many spectators to watch the action. This year, the stadium stage was used three times (SSS1, SSS8, SSS16), totaling 22 stages covering 304.12 km, up from last year’s 19 stages covering 274.31 km.
Mountain roads with well-paved asphalt are neat, but compared to those in Europe, they are narrower and often covered with fallen leaves, making it difficult to maintain traction. The racers who had experienced last year’s rally in Japan remarked that the roads have more corners than the infamous Corsica Rally (France). With rain forecasted this year, the tension among them was palpable.
Pirelli, the tire supplier, warned that due to the narrow roads, drivers need to be cautious of dirt, gravel, and leaves dragged onto the road during corner cutting. Wet tires were expected to be used on Friday, given the rain forecast, while Pirelli P Zero RA WRC tires, both hard and soft compounds, were anticipated for the weekend. Each driver could choose a combination of 28 tires from a selection of hard (28), soft (18), and wet (Cinturato RWB, 12) tires.
Hyundai Motorsport fielded Thierry Neuville, Esapekka Lappi, and Dani Sordo. Neuville and Sordo had previously shown strong performances in tarmac rallies. Although the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles had already been decided this season, the fight for second place between Neuville and Toyota’s Elfyn Evans was still ongoing, with Evans at 191 points and Neuville at 184, only a 7-point difference. Notably, last year Hyundai secured a one-two finish in Japan with Neuville winning and Tanak in second place.
Before the race, Neuville commented, “It’s an interesting event in a country that I really like, especially the culture and atmosphere. The fans are really excited about the WRC and I think we will see even more enthusiastic fans supporting us this year. I didn’t even realise I had so many fans in Japan until I got there last year - it was so nice to see. To be successful, we need to make sure we avoid understeer and use the tyres correctly. At this time of year the conditions can be difficult. Hopefully we can continue our success and have another great experience out there.”
Sordo, who could not fully compete last year due to a vehicle fire, described the challenges of the Rally Japan: “Rally Japan is difficult as the stages are often narrow and twisty but is a nice event.” He also mentioned that since pre-testing is not possible, the only opportunity to test the setup is during the shakedown.
With Ott Tänak’s return confirmed for the next season, the competition for Hyundai’s third seat is intensifying. Lappi, who participated in a full season this year, is likely to switch to part-time, with the rest of the season possibly shared between Teemu Suninen and Sordo. Despite being 40, Sordo is rich in experience and has contributed significantly to the team. Many are wondering about what plan Hyundai team director Cyril Abiteboul has got.
Toyota, having secured the double champion title, was relatively relaxed. However, determined not to repeat last year’s loss to Hyundai on their home ground, Toyota was eager for victory. Additionally, Evans aimed to maintain his second-place position in the championship. Alongside Rovanperä and Evans, Sébastien Ogier, who won the Rally Japan in 2010, entered for his eighth season, with Takamoto Katsuta also participating.
M-Sport Ford fielded Tänak and Pierre-Louis Loubet. With Tänak’s transfer confirmed, the team is contemplating next season’s driver lineup, hence calling back Adrien Fourmaux from WRC2 for his first Rally1 entry since Spain last year. Loubet is expected to retain his seat next year.
In WRC2, the lineup included recently confirmed champion Andreas Mikkelsen, his teammate Nikolay Gryazin, and Kajetan Kajetanowicz, among others. Notably, former F1 driver and current All-Rally Japan participant Heikki Kovalainen also caught attention. Among Japanese drivers, veterans like Osamu Fukunaga and Satoshi Imai participated in WRC2.
Thursday morning, November 16, saw the shakedown test at Kuragaike Park’s 2.75km course, the same as last year’s test and opening stage. Thierry Neuville started off strong with the top time of 2 minutes and 3 seconds. Despite the pleasant weather, except for the fallen leaves, the forecasted rain for Friday kept the racers and team officials on edge.
At 7:05 PM, SSS1 began, a special course set up on the grounds of the Toyota Stadium soccer field, complete with a jump and obstacles. The head-to-head start format brought a different excitement and thrill to the traditional WRC. The competition kicked off with Fourmaux and Mikkelsen, followed by Evans and Sordo, then Katsuta and Tanak, and lastly, Rovanperä and Neuville. Neuville topped SSS1, leading the overall standings, followed by Lappi, Tanak, Sordo, Katsuta, and Rovanperä.
Friday, November 17, marked the start of the Japan tour with SS2 Isegami’s Tunnel, the longest stage of this race. The stages of Isegami’s Tunnel, Inabu Dam, and Shitara Town were repeated in the morning and afternoon, concluding the day with SSS8 at the Toyota Stadium. The 133.26km-stretch across seven stages (SS2~SSS8) was all wet due to overnight rain.
SS2, notorious for its narrow road and tunnel where only one car could barely pass, was extended to 23.67km this year. Evans captured SS2, rising to the overall lead, with Ogier close behind. The rainy stage was chaotic. Neuville, trailing Evans by 20 seconds, said post-race, “The surface was constantly changing, and the heavy rain made it too tricky. Every time I tried to go faster, I lost grip, so I just went with it.”
Neuville was lucky; Katsuta collided with a tree and damaged his radiator after failing to overcome understeer on a right corner at the 11km mark. Sordo also lost grip at the same corner and went off the course. It was a rare early retirement for the usually cautious Sordo. Shortly after, Fourmaux also crashed near Sordo, waiting together for rescue.
Difficulties continued on SS3, which runs along a reservoir. There was so much water on the road that full throttle was almost impossible, and visibility was also a big problem due to the rain and fog. Evans was fastest, and Neuville overtook Ogier to take second place overall. Taking advantage of the chaos in the Rally 1 class, WRC2’s Mikkelsen, Ford Team’s Grégoire Munster, and Gryazin emerged to the top. SS4 was eventually canceled due to continued bad weather.
SS5 marked the start of the afternoon session at Isegami Tunnel, still challenging but improved from the morning. Katsuta recorded the top time, with Neuville close behind, narrowing his gap to Evans to 10.5 seconds. However, Neuville crashed into a tree due to understeer at the first corner, dashing his hopes for second in the championship. Lappi remained the only Hyundai driver.
By the end of Friday, Evans maintained the overall lead, with Toyota dominating the top three spots. Ogier faced a one-minute penalty for repairing a severely damaged frame in SS5. WRC2’s Mikkelsen, Munster, and Gryazin followed. Lappi topped SSS8 but was 3 minutes and 44 seconds behind the leader. Sordo and Fourmaux, who retired in SS2, were unable to compete on Saturday.
Saturday’s stages included Nukata Forest and Lake Mikawako, followed by a short special stage in Okazaki City, repeated twice. The busy schedule covered 84.68km with eight stages and no mid-day service, only a tire fitting zone in Okazaki Central Park.
During the Saturday race, the Toyota team’s home drivers, led by Ogier, Evans, and Katsuta, dominated the top times. Although Neuville and Tänak also recorded upper-tier stage times, they couldn’t match the momentum of the Toyota team. At the end of Saturday, Evans was still in the lead, followed by Ogier and Rovanperä in third. Lappi made a significant move in the last stage of the day, SSS16, securing the top time and pushing past the WRC2 drivers to fourth place, although he was more than a minute behind Rovanperä. Tänak was in fifth, 26 seconds behind Lappi, with Katsuta in sixth. In WRC2, with Kovalainen suffering a gearbox failure, Kajetanowicz moved up to third, capitalizing on the intense competition for the lead between Mikkelsen and Munster.
The Sunday races began with SS17 Asahi Kougen, a 7.52km stage, followed by the 22.92km Ena City Stage (SS18) and the 11.6km Nenoue Kougen Stage (SS19). In the afternoon, the race concluded with another round through Ena City, Nenoue Kougen, and Asahi Kougen. A total of 84.08km across six stages marked the final showdown of the 2023 season. While some early sections of the course were dry, subsequent stages presented challenges due to wet leaves and grass, resulting in lower grip levels.
Neuville, after an initial mistake, furiously raced, marking the top time in the opening SS17, as well as SS18, SS20, and the Power Stage SS22, which carried an additional 5 points. However, he was about 30 minutes behind the leaders, making a comeback difficult. Katsuta also pushed hard, overtaking Tänak in SS19 to move up to fifth place, having been 15 seconds behind the previous day. However, catching up to Lappi proved too much. The top three - Evans, Ogier, and Rovanperä - maintained their positions by controlling their pace. In the final Power Stage SS22, Neuville secured the top time, followed by Tänak, Lappi, Katsuta, and Ogier, each earning additional points.
Ultimately, Evans won the Rally Japan, securing his position as the second driver in the 2023 championship. The Toyota trio of Ogier and Rovanperä, along with Evans, dominated the home ground podium, while Lappi successfully fended off Katsuta’s late challenge to hold onto fourth place. Tänak finished in sixth, with Mikkelsen, Gryazin, Kajetanowicz, and Fukunaga from WRC2 filling the 7th to 10th spots. Kajetanowicz clinched the WRC2 Challenger title, a class targeting drivers/co-drivers without a win and who have not been named as a manufacturer point driver.
Unlike other motorsports that take long winter breaks, WRC’s off-season is quite short. The 2024 seasUnlike other motorsports that take long winter breaks, WRC’s off-season is quite short. The 2024 season opener, the Monte Carlo Rally, is scheduled for January 25-28 in Gap, France. The Kenya Safari Rally, usually held in late June, moves to March, and Poland and Latvia are added to the calendar. Poland returns to WRC after 7 years, while Latvia is promoted from the ERC (European Rally Championship). Both are gravel rallies, keeping the gravel/tarmac/snow rally ratio the same as this year.on opener, the Monte Carlo Rally, is scheduled for January 25-28 in Gap, France. The Kenya Safari Rally, usually held in late June, moves to March, and Poland and Latvia are added to the calendar. Poland returns to WRC after 7 years, while Latvia is promoted from the ERC (European Rally Championship). Both are gravel rallies, keeping the gravel/tarmac/snow rally ratio the same as this year.
The biggest change for the next season is seen in Hyundai’s team. After hiring Cyril Abiteboul, a former F1 director, just before this season, Hyundai has now brought in François-Xavier Demaison to lead new car development. With the re-signing of Tänak from Ford, Hyundai has significantly strengthened its driver lineup.
By Sujin Lee, Automotive Critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. After becoming an editor and the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉 and 〈Car Vision〉, I have started a new career as an auto critic. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’, a maniac, in me, wants to keep internal combustion
engines from extinction.
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