What you need to know:
- Thierry Neuville of Belgium was in his element as he steered his Hyundai I20 R1 to a 1-2 victory ahead of teammate Estonian Ott Tanak
- Toyota could only manage a third position achieved by local hero Katsuta Takamoto in a Yaris R1 Hybrid
- Japan was not kind to world champion Kalle Rovanpera, Toyota and Ford too
The 2022 WRC fixtures ended last Sunday in Aichi, Japan, home of Toyota Gazoo Racing.
Hyundai signed off the season on a high by capturing their fifth victory of the year, setting the stage for an open competition amongst the three manufacturers’ teams in 2023.
Thierry Neuville of Belgium was in his element as he steered his Hyundai I20 R1 to a 1-2 victory ahead of teammate Estonian Ott Tanak, in the process generating invaluable marketing gains for the South Korea manufacturer in a market heavily skewed towards local motor production corporations including Toyota.
This was yet again Neuville’s and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe’s superlative performance of the season coming hot on the heels of his victory in a 1-2-3 Hyundai finish in WRC Greece in September.
Toyota could only manage a third position achieved by local hero Katsuta Takamoto in a Yaris R1 Hybrid after his teammate Elyn Evans, who was poised for a face-off with Neuville on the final day, chose the wrong tyres on a rainy day before suffering a puncture to push him back and throw his chances of success into the winds.
This promoted Tanak to second place, a meritorious position as he bids Hyundai goodbye on his way to a team to be named in the coming days when the manufacturers announce their 2024 drivers’ line-up.
Rally Japan, returning to the WRC after 10 years, had its fair share of success and drama.
None was more spectacular than the fate that befell Dani Sordo whose Hyundai I20 caught fire and was reduced to a smouldering chassis, underlying the inherent danger of the new Hybrid R1 car.
The Spaniard was caught out in the opening stage (Isegami’s Tunnel 23.29km), when he was forced to stop his i20 N 16.1km into the stage after reporting a burning smell on Friday.
Sordo and co-driver Candido Carrera had complained of smelling petrol inside the car since Thursday before the accident the following day.
"It was coming really quickly since the beginning of the stage," said Sordo, who managed to exit the car before a large fireball engulfed the whole vehicle reducing everything into ashes.
Attempts were made to put the fire out but the blaze was too severe.
"The car was smelling of petrol a lot and just here in a straight line the fire was coming between the seats with a lot of smoke, so I stopped the car."
This is one area manufacturers will be working on especially on whether to use fire extinguishers or Fire Balls to enhance safety and firefighting equipment in Hybrid cars.
Japan was not kind to world champion Kalle Rovanpera, Toyota and Ford too.
While Rovanpera managed to return the WRC crown home in Finland which last produced a world champion in the name of Marcus Gronholm in 2002, his luck did not stand in Japan where he finished 12th overall due to a puncture.
M-Sport Ford has been plagued by drivers’ misfortunes, leading many to conclude that the Ford Puma R1 Hyrid is a very good car that lacks pilots capable of consistency.
Eight-time world champion Sebastien Loeb won the season-opening WRC Rallye Monte Carlo in January in a Ford Puma, their only victory of 2023, raising eyebrows and anticipation that Toyota’s domination in the WRC since 2019 would be put to test.
But this was not to be the case.
Ford has shown its true potential here and there but something always goes wrong in almost every WRC event, leaving Toyota and Hyundai to dominate the season.
Hyundai has concluded 2022 with five outright victories by Neuville (2) and Tanak (3).
Tanak is leaving Hyundai but the South Korean marque has moved swiftly to find who will be named soon.
The 2023 season should be exciting if Tanak joins M-Sport Ford, Neuville’s luck holds, and Rovanpera continue with his 2022 form.
It will even be better if the unlucky Ford duo of Craig Breen and Gus Greensmith find their winning ways and Dani Sordo is retained by Hyundai.