Eyes on Toyota as Japan stages World Rally Championship grand finale

Finland's driver Kalle Rovanpera and co-driver Jonne Halttunen of Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT drive during the stage (SS 11 Knaus Tabbert Bayerischer Wald 1) of the WRC Central European Rally 2023 in Riedelsbach, Neureichenau, Germany on October 28, 2023. The Central European Rally is making its debut on the WRC rally calendar. It has started in the Czech capital, Prague with more stages in Austria and concludes on October 29, 2023 in Passau, Germany.

Photo credit: Joe Klamar | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The 22 stages tally 304.12km in a total route of 958.95km. Japan concludes the 2023 season as Kenya embarks on preparations of the 2024 season with an Easter Safari Rally in March 28-31.

The grand finale of the 2023 FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) starts tomorrow in Japan where Toyota, as driver's and manufacturers' world champions, will be chasing a treble with a home win, a target  every motorsport-loving Japanese is yearning for.

Japan returned to the WRC in 2022 following a 12-year absence and, boasting a new all-asphalt format which proved to be a huge hit with the drivers and fans alike. Barring a small tweak, the route remains almost unchanged for 2023.

An exciting addition to the Toyota Stadium stage in the itinerary named ‘Toyota SSS’ which will see a two-car side-by-side test open the proceedings tomorrow evening in front of 40,000 spectators.

The only WRC event in Asia will feature four days of action. Toyota Gazoo Racing Team is taking Rally Japan very seriously, and so is their home driver Takamoto Katsuta. 

Toyota were a big disappointment last year when Hyundai stole the show with a 1-2 finish with Katsuta being the highest placed in third. Toyota is not contemplating that this year, and Katsuta is hoping to improve on the third position.

He is the single biggest brand ambassador who has asked  fans to produce the 'fire' right from the start at Toyota Stadium, where a 40,000 spectators will witness two cars racing side by side.

The ever smiling Katsuta is usually a big hit wherever he goes but the home crowd will be asking for more, possibly a Japanese winner aboard a Japanese car in a Japanese city.

 Returning home with a fifth place finish at last month’s Central European Rally (CER) has helped Katsuta’s confidence on asphalt.

“It is my home round,” he told WRC.com.  “So, like you can think, I want to make a good result and a nice rally. The fans were incredible last time, they are bringing so much energy from the side of the road – always smiling and waving the flags and so, so many incredible numbers in the service park.

“I thank them for this last year and I hope to see so many of them coming again this time.”

“The experience (in CER) was good,” he said. “The weather and the grip was changing all of the time, but working with the team I found a better set-up with the car and I took the confidence after that. I want this in Japan too. Like I say, home rally, I need to push. Last year wasn’t so easy, I knew all of the time that I had to finish this rally and I was thinking about this a lot.

Toyota has lined up an all conquering team led by world champion Kalle Rovanpera, many rally aficionados in his native Finland compare him to the great Juha Kankkunen, Briton Elfyn Evans and Safari Rally champion Frenchman Sebastien Ogier.

This squad has a single purpose of stopping a repeat 1-2 score by Hyundai last year. “We know there will be a lot of fans out there watching Toyota. Last year the support was incredible, so many people, so many fans. Winning at home would be special. We know the main targets for the team [the world championship titles] have been achieved, but this [Rally Japan victory] would mean a lot and that’s what we will be trying for,” Ogier told WRC.com.

Friday is the longest day of the rally and boasts seven stages comprising a total competitive distance of 133.26km. Up first is Isegami’s Tunnel (23.67km), made famous by the daunting tunnel which claimed Kajetan Kajetanowicz’s Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo in 2022. Dani Sordo also came unstuck in this stage when his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 caught fire.

Inabu Dam (19.38km) is faster and more flowing, while the latter half of Shitara Town (22.53km) is new for this year. The trio are repeated after a 40-minute service halt before another blast through Toyota SSS rounds out the day. Saturday is shorter but certainly no less challenging.

It starts with Nukata Forest (20.32km) - the stage which ended WRC champion Kalle Rovanperä’s podium hopes in 2022 when he stopped to change a wheel after hitting a rock face.

The 14.78km Lake Mikawako is up next before double runs of the Okazaki City super special (2.84km) – revised and extended for this year – lead the crews into a midday tyre fitting zone.

Nukata Forest and Lake Mikawako are repeated in the afternoon ahead of Shinshiro City (6.70km), which had the highest average speed last year. A 45-minute evening service halt precedes the third and final run of Toyota SSS. 

Sunday's finale boasts six stages with no opportunity for service. Ena City (22.92km), Nenoue Kougen (11.60km) and Asahi Kougen (7.52km) are each tackled twice, with the second passage of the latter forming the bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage.

The 22 stages tally 304.12km in a total route of 958.95km. Japan concludes the 2023 season as Kenya embarks on preparations of the 2024 season with an Easter Safari Rally in March 28-31.