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WRC Rally Japan Preview

Written by Apostolos Papageorgiou, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Credit: Jaanus Ree / Red Bull Content Pool

For the final time in 2023, it’s rally week, and what a finale it promises to be. Set in the narrow asphalt roads that are buried deep into the forests, Rally Japan is set to offer the usual tarmac thrills and spills we’ve come to expect from the World Rally Championship.

It proved notoriously difficult for the crews last time out, with only six Rally1 cars finishing inside the top ten, and even then, most faced some sort of problem throughout the weekend.

Kalle Rovanperä managed to secure his second successive title at the Central European Rally three weeks ago, becoming the youngest double world champion in the process. With Toyota having sealed the manufacturers championship even earlier, this should let the young Finn off the leash, to enjoy himself in the only way he knows best — by pushing flat out from start to finish.

It’s all to play for behind Rovanperä, however. Elfyn Evans had a disastrous rally last time out, crashing out of second place on the second day, effectively handing the championship to his teammate.

He needs a good showing in Japan to cheer himself up for the upcoming winter break, where he should focus on resetting, and mentally preparing for a championship assault that will see him on top, after three seasons of being the runner-up.

Credit: Colin McMaster

Thierry Neuville is riding high after winning the inaugural Central European rally. As a result, he’s in with a mathematical shot of snatching second place from Evans, especially if he can repeat last year’s performance, and take the win. Should he manage to beat the Welshman, he’ll surely send a powerful message to his team, as well as former and (soon to be) future teammate, Ott Tänak.

Speaking of which, the Estonian is about to start his final event for M-Sport, after what proved to be a promising, yet ultimately unsuccessful season, filled with technical problems. Even so, Tänak’s consecutive podium appearances — including his triumph in Chile — mean he could overhaul Neuville in the standings and finish in the top three. It still looks a long shot, as the pair are separated by 21 points, but then again, nothing is certain in the world of rallying.

Another battle to look out for in the points table is for fifth and sixth. Sebastien Ogier, who returns for this round, currently holds the former, although Esapekka Lappi has an outside chance of making it his own.

Realistically though, EP should be looking behind, as the other Toyota of Takamoto Katsuta is just nine points behind the Finn. The man from Japan will have extra motivation from his beloved supporters, who will certainly be out in force to cheer on their home hero.

Credit: Colin McMaster

The final name on the Rally1 list is Adrien Fourmaux. Having suffered a rather bruising 2022 campaign in the top class, the young Frenchman switched to Rally2 for 2023, showing signs of speed and maturity, consistently battling in the top 6.

The highlight came at the last round, after he won the RC2 class in an M-Sport prepped Fiesta Rally2. It may be his first time in Japan, but tarmac is his favourite surface, and with M-Sport having at least two empty seats for next year, this could be an opportunity for Fourmaux to secure his place on the 2024 roster.

The championship may have been decided in WRC2 as well, with 2021 world champion Andreas Mikkelsen crowned champion once again — but the big names are once again out in force. The likes of Nikolay Gryazin, Kajetan Kajetanowicz, and the aforementioned Mikkelsen battling it out for the top spot. Alos competing is former F1 driver Heikki Kovalainen. He could prove a dark horse in this event, having finished in the top ten here last year.

Credit: Matt Jelonek


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