The 2022 WRC season ended with the Rally Japan (WRC Forum8 Rally Japan). The WRC is a world championship, but hosts are predominantly European; And Asia is the least important region among them. Only Indonesia, Japan and China have ever held a WRC, and these have only happened 10 times so far. Rally Japan, which first appeared on the WRC calendar in 2004, was the off‒road Gravel Rally in Hokkaido. It was canceled in 2009 and returned again in 2010, but was halted due to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.
Rally Japan was scheduled to take place in 2020 while Toyota was trying to make a comeback with its return to the WRC in 2017. But trouble struck again. It was the COVID‒19 pandemic. Rally Japan, which was revived after 12 years this year, two years later than originally planned, is completely different from before. First, the venue moved from Hokkaido to Aichi Prefecture in central Japan; And it’s a Tarmac Rally. The company’s headquarters is in Toyota City, about three hours west of Tokyo, so it’s like home to the automaker. This year’s Rally Japan’s service park was set up at Toyota Soccer Stadium. Since this stadium has nothing to do with the automaker, the English name is sometimes changed to ‘City of Toyota Stadium’ in the case of international games where the right to use the name is prohibited.
As everything has changed, this Rally Japan was a huge challenge for racers. At times like this, thorough pace note‒taking was more important than ever. Compared to the recent Spanish Rally, the roads are narrower and the corners are lined up. There are a lot of fallen leaves on the stage along the mountain, and it is difficult to secure a grip due to the low temperature. In addition, concrete drains are lined on both sides of the road, so if a car falls into the drain, it is highly likely to lead to a serious accident. Racers who went on a recce drive for a pre‒race inspection expected the toughest race this season, saying that it has more corners than the French Rally Corsica, which is known to have about 10,000 corners. Stages were set up in Toyota, Okazaki, and Shinjo in Aichi Prefecture, as well as Nakatsugawa and Ena in the neighboring Gifu Prefecture.
Although both drivers and manufacturers championship titles have been confirmed, there is still a race for second place between Hyundai Motorsport’s Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville, and the WRC2 title. A difference of 21 points between Tanak and Neuville. In the WRC2 class, Andreas Mikkelsen has the most points. However, he is not participating this time, so Emil Lindholm and Kajetan Kajetanowicz, who are 5 points behind, are likely to win. In WRC2, racers can participate in up to seven races during the season.
The Hyundai team did their best to reap the beauty of the end game in the final match. Three drivers were brought in: Ott Tanak, Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo. Tanak and Neuville, who would turn from teammates to enemies next season, competed in the final round for second place in Driver’s points. The third car was originally going to be Oliver Solberg’s, but the opportunity went to Sordo as he decided to leave the team. Sordo is the only Hyundai team driver to have Rally Japan experience.
Hyundai’s acting head coach Julien Moncet said, “As always happens when the rules change, we expected this season to be difficult. Of course, I wanted to earn the title, but instead, I think I am satisfied with the performance of the new machine i20 N Rally 1 Hybrid this year. So far we’ve taken four wins, the most in a season, and it performed evenly well across all road surfaces. If we can get 5 wins, it will be the best result for the end of the season, and I think it will help next season.” Hyundai, which gave up on renewing the contract with Solberg, recently suffered a turmoil when Tanak also decided to leave the team. Powertrain manager Moncet is running the team as a deputy without official supervision yet, so people are wondering about a new manager and drivers. A few names have come up, including Hyundai WRC2 member Teemu Suninen and Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi, but no official announcement has been made yet.
Besides Kalle Rovanperä and Elfyn Evans, Sébastien Ogier decided to part‒time for Toyota. This will be the first home game in the team’s history as Toyota did not have a Works team in the previous Rally Japan days. For Takamoto Katsuta, who is from Aichi Prefecture, he is familiar with the road environment, so the conditions are quite favorable. Ogier, the 2010 Rally Japan winner, was up for his second win.
The M‒Sport Ford has only two racers on its entry list: Craig Breen and Gus Greensmith. That’s a fairly short list compared to the past, when the team had five Rally 1 machines. Breen has teamed up with his new co‒driver James Fulton to replace the recently retired Paul Nagle. Adrien Fourmaux gave up the final match and decided to focus on preparing for the next season. In addition, F1 driver Heikki Kovalainen, who became the Rally Japan JN‒1 class champion before this season, and female co‒driver Umemoto Madoka, who used to be a singer, also drew attention.
After the celebrations on Thursday evening, the evening race kicked off on a 2.75km‒long stage set up in nearby Kuragaike Park. It’s almost the same as the shakedown test course, but in reverse. In the opening, Ogier and Breen, who recently replaced co‒drivers, took first and second place by 0.1 second. Ogier was paired up with Vincent Landais, who was once Pierre‒Louis Loubet’s co‒driver, and Breen’s first match with James Fulton. Hyundai’s Tanak and Neuville followed closely behind by only 0.1 second.
Friday’s course was the longest of the rally ‒ a 130.22km‒long course that repeats three stages including the service park, starting with the longest Isegami Turnnel at 23.29km, followed by Inabu Dam (19.38km) and Shitara Town (22.44km). These take up almost half of the entire course (283.27km) of Rally Japan. Many racers struggled with tricky stages and understeer.
It was Rovanpera who marked the opening top time. Ogier, who was fastest the night before, wasted more than two minutes with puncture. But the most unfortunate was Sordo. His rally car caught fire, and he even borrowed a fire extinguisher from Greensmith, who came behind him, but to no avail. The race was canceled and the following SS3 was also canceled.
When the race resumed on SS4, this time Evans marked the top and tied Neuville for the lead. Rovanpera is third by 0.7 seconds, and Tanak in fourth with transmission problems is 9.1 seconds behind. This time Breen retired by sliding on fallen leaves and crashing into the guardrail. The WRC2 title was now leaning towards Lindholm as Cayetanovic also suffered damage to his car at the exit of SS2 Isegami Tunnel. In Rally Japan, accidents occurred one after another from the beginning of the game, and in SS4, ordinary vehicles appeared on the course, which made the officials concerned.
After barely passing the morning stage, Evans in SS5 and Rovanpera in SS6 recorded top times. The last SS7 was canceled because the guardrails were not restored. At the end of Friday, Evans was in the lead overall, with Neuville in second by three seconds. Lovanferra is 2.1 seconds behind Neuville. Tanak, who fixed a transmission problem, is 4th with an 8.8 second gap with Rovanpera, and Gatsuta on home ground is 5th. From 6th place Greensmith, it was more than 2 minutes with the lead.
On Saturday, the drivers looped through the 7.08km‒long Shinshiro City, the 20.56km‒long Nukata Forest, and the 14.74km‒long Lake Mikawako, followed by a 1.4km‒long sprint on riverbeds in downtown Okazaki City. SSS was repeated twice. In the opening SS8 Nukata Forest, Evans was the fastest, widening the time difference with Neuville to 5.9 seconds. On the other hand, Rovanpera, who was chasing Neuville for third place, crashed into a stone wall and suffered a flat tire. On SS9 around Lake Mikawako, Neuville narrowed the gap to Evans by another 1.2 seconds to 4.7 seconds. Tanak, now in third place, is 23.1 seconds behind Neuville. On the 7km‒long SS10, Tanak was the fastest.
From SS11 the drivers repeated the morning stages again. Neuville reduced the time difference with Evans to 3.9 seconds, and finally overtook Evans by 2 seconds in the following SS12 to become the overall leader. Rovanpera’s car suffered major front wheel damage and was pushed out of the scoring range, while Greensmith struggled with power steering problems. Due to delays in the race, the Okazaki City stage, which was originally scheduled to be repeated twice, was reduced to SS14 once. Neuville and Tanak were the fastest here.
By Saturday, the overall standings were Neuville in the lead and Evans in second by four seconds. With Tanak in third place with Evans by 35.9 seconds, the Hyundai Team’s chances of a double podium increased. Behind them, Gatsuta, Ogier, and Greensmith made it all the way to sixth, while WRC2’s Lindholm, Sami Pajari, Grégoire Munster and Suninen filled the rest of the points. Compared to Friday, no major accident occured, but there was a rain forecast on Sunday, maintaining the tension until the end.
On Sunday morning the drivers went through five stages without service. After the start at Asahi Kougen (7.52km) and past Ena City (21.59km) and Nenoue Plateau (11.60km), the drivers returned to Ena City and Asahi Kougen (11.60km). repeated. SS19 Asahi Kougen, the final stage, also served as the power stage. The fickle weather forced Hyundai and Toyota to come up with different strategies. Unlike Evans, who only had dry tires, Neuville started with soft, hard, and even wet tires. Evans, who has not won a single win this season, managed to record a top time on the opening stage, narrowing the gap with Neuville to 0.6 seconds. However, his hopes were lost when he suffered a flat tire at SS16. With Tanak rising to second place, Hyundai’s one‒two is now secured.
From SS18 it started to rain. The road surface was extremely slippery, so the drivers marked a slower time by more than two minutes than on SS16, which was the same course in the morning. However, the Hyundai duo was not in a hurry. In the end, Neuville won and Tanak finished second, giving the Hyundai team a one‒two finish. Katsuta, with home ground advantage, was third, followed by Ogier and Evans. In WRC2, individual driver Munster, who drove a Hyundai i20 N Rally 2, won Rally Japan, followed by Suninen. Lindholm finished 9th overall and 3rd in the class to win the 2022 WRC2 Champion title. Kovalainen, a former F1 racer, took the last place in the scoring zone with 10th place overall.
The beginning of this season, when rally cars were changed to hybrids, was a series of hardships for Hyundai. However, they quickly resolved the problem and recovered their stamina, winning their first victory in the 5th round of Rally Italia, and continuing a fierce battle with Toyota throughout the season. Although they failed to secure the title, 5 wins (3 wins for Tanak, 2 wins for Neuville) is the record for the most wins in a season since its foundation. Furthermore, by winning a one‒two finish in the final round, they played their national anthem in the middle of their rival nation. And it’s time for them to move on for the 2023 season. With Solberg and Tanak leaving the team, there will be big changes to the driver team, not to mention the deputy manager. People are looking forward to how Hyundai will transform in the upcoming 2023 season.
By Sujin Lee, automobile 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’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.