On November 20, barely a week after Rally Japan, TOYOTA GAZOO Racing held its Rally Challenge grassroots rally in Toyota at the same location as the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC).
In baseball terms, this is like following up the MLB World Series with an amateur tournament at the same stadium.
This local celebration of all things rally was made all the more exciting by three special guests, who had extended their stay in Japan for this very reason – Toyota Rally Team Principal Jari-Matti Latvala; the WRC’s youngest-ever champion, 22-year-old Kalle Rovanperä; and Takamoto Katsuta, who landed on the podium with a third-place finish at Japan’s world rally event.
In this article, Toyota Times looks back at the panel discussion with these three guests, one which got off to a surprising start.
And the host is…?!
“It is now time for our discussion with WRC drivers. Please welcome our host onto the stage.”
With this announcement, out came President Akio Toyoda, dressed in his racing gear and holding a microphone. He introduced himself, saying, “Hello, I’m your host, Akio Toyoda.”
Akio then proceeded to introduce each of the other four rally drivers who joined him on stage. The final seat was filled by Takamoto’s father, nine-time All Japan Rally champion Norihiko Katsuta.
First of all, I would like to thank all of the members of today’s panel for being here. To show the appreciation of all our fans in Japan, please welcome them with a round of applause.
For the second year running, this team clinched the drivers’, co-drivers’, and manufacturers’ championships for Toyota. I would like to ask (team principal) Jari-Matti Latvala to share a few words about this season.
And so, the discussion got underway, with Akio truly leading the show.
Arigato gozaimasu, Akio-san. Well, if I had to sum it up in one word, I think the 2022 season was “amazing.”
We were able to win every possible title. And in Takamoto’s case, we had set him a goal of two podium finishes, and he actually managed to make the podium twice.
Thank you. Next, we have Kalle Rovanperä, whose brilliant performance this year made him the youngest World Champion ever!
Kalle has been drifting since he was eight years old, so despite his age, he has a great deal of experience as a rally driver. (To Kalle) How do you feel about this season?
Hello everyone. Of course, this was a great year for us and for me personally.
The challenge for this season was to see if we could defend our title for two years in a row, and we did just that, winning back-to-back championships.
This was also the first year with the Rally1 hybrid car (regulations). I feel that I was able to quickly grasp the car and learn to drive it well.
It was an incredible year for the team and of course, a good year for me as well.
It’s true that, while I may be young for a champion, as Morizo said, I began rally driving at the age of eight, so I consider myself to be rather experienced.
WRC drivers take on Japan’s roads
Morizo then asked the young champion for his thoughts on Japanese roads.
It was my first Japanese rally experience. I would say most of the WRC drivers were driving these roads for the first time. As for my impressions, the roads were very difficult. These were demanding roads that ask a lot of the driver.
The roads are narrow, very technical, and you must rely on your technique. And the conditions were also tricky. As a driver, they were really challenging roads.
In terms of grip, I was learning a lot about the road as we went – how best to manage it, how to make the most of the grip, how to get a better feel for the road.
The conditions also varied from stage to stage, so yes… the roads were tricky and difficult.
Tricky. That word cropped up time and again. Even for a world champion, Japanese roads proved challenging and difficult. Akio then asked if Kalle would like to race on those roads again.
Of course! I’m sure the other drivers feel the same way too. For us at TOYOTA GAZOO Racing, this is our home ground, so Japan is really important.
On top of that, drivers love a challenge. In that sense too, I would certainly love to come back and take on Japan’s roads again!
Akio also asked local boy Takamoto Katsuta what he thought about the roads.
Compared to Europe, as Kalle said, the roads in Japan are much narrower and more technical and difficult.
Of course, there were wider streets too, but around 70 to 80% were what you’d call “forest roads,” incredibly narrow paths where reading the grip changes is extremely difficult.
I’ve competed in a few All Japan Rally events in the past, but this time around the car and the tires were different, which made the terrain feel completely different.
Rally1 cars are naturally wider and have a lot of power, and I found it difficult to use that power well.
Host Akio makes for a unique conversation
For the guests on stage, Akio was not only the event host but, as “team owner,” also their employer. Listening to the conversation, however, one never got that impression.
It was as if the person who knew the drivers best had come on stage, mic in hand, to lead the discussion. To him, Takamoto Katsuta was just “Taka.” And when it came time to introduce Taka to the fans…
Taka started out as a circuit driver. He used to race in formula, and that experience is serving him well now.
He’s racing in the WRC and from next year will be part of our factory-backed team. (To Takamoto) How have you made the most of your past experience? How does rally differ from circuit racing? And which do you like more, Taka?
You don’t beat around the bush, do you (laughs).
No one else asks such questions (laughs).
That’s true… As Morizo said, I’ve gained all kinds of experience driving on Japanese roads, and from next year I will have more chances to race as part of the factory-backed team, which will be a new challenge. Above all, I’m going to do everything I can to show my full ability on that stage.
In the beginning, I couldn’t help but feel that my racing experience was working against me as I tried to become a rally driver.
On a racetrack, you’re doing laps of the same course so even when you try to push the limits, to some extent, you end up with nothing more than small mistakes. If you do that in rally, however, you find yourself running off cliffs or hitting trees, and that’s why I often crashed.
But now that I’ve moved up from (second rank) WRC2 to the top category, my circuit experience has become a great advantage in more ways, even in looking at the data. I’m very grateful to have had that experience from karting to formula.
The movement of a kart is also quite quick and very direct. Personally, I feel that this experience was incredibly valuable.
Takamoto switched from circuit racing to rally in 2015, initially getting practice at domestic rally events in Finland. In those days, he often ended up off the course, or as Takamoto himself puts it, “running off cliffs or hitting trees.”
His cockpit at the time even sported reminders that “finishing is no.1!” and “the clock doesn’t matter!”
“Takamoto ran off course and did not finish….”
Back then, Akio would be notified each time. He would ask, “Are you hurt?” and then offer advice: “Don’t rush, first worry about finishing!” and “A driver must be able to deliver the car across that line. Just make sure you get there.”
Having watched over Takamoto since those days, in a way, Akio was something of a father figure. Only he could bring out that unique on-stage conversation for the fans.
Next, the host turned to the topic of Takamoto’s real father.
Taka, you managed to get on the podium this time (at Rally Japan), but in the final power stage you were slower than your father, who was in a different class, right?
That’s right. I was shocked to see the times afterward. I think he was about five seconds faster than me?
Seeing that my dad was five seconds faster, I started to worry about my spot for next season…
That spot (as a WRC driver) is on the line in because I’m gunning for it too (laughs).
Exactly! Everyone’s after it… (laughs). I didn’t realize until it was pointed out, but I did find that my father was faster…
A tale of two Katsutas
As a driver, Takamoto’s “real father” has been the All Japan Rally champion nine times. Recently, he also teams up with Akio as Morizo’s rally co-driver.
Rally Japan has returned after 12 years. In the past, Mitsubishi, Subaru, and Suzuki had taken part, but for Toyota, this became our first WRC event on home soil.
Throughout that time, Norihiko was driving for Subaru, and now he’s competing in the All Japan Rally behind the wheel of a TGR GR Yaris.
I would like to ask you, as Taka’s father, to explain some of the differences between the All Japan Rally and the WRC… and also tell us how you rate your son.
Hello everyone, I’m Takamoto Katsuta’s father, Norihiko. Nowadays, it’s easier to introduce myself as Takamoto Katsuta's father rather than “the All Japan Rally Katsuta.”
It’s wonderful, but at the same time it’s a little bittersweet… but as a parent, I’m really thrilled for him.
I’ve been competing in the All Japan Rally for a long time, and I thank Subaru for their support over 25 years.
I offered a little advice on the development of the GR Yaris, which led to an offer from Morizo. Although I was thinking about retiring, I figured this would be my last chance and decided to move to Toyota to race the GR Yaris in the All Japan Rally.
I expected a lot of problems in making my debut year in a newly designed car and not even hoping to win or achieve good results. However, as Morizo says, this was about building ever-better cars through motorsport. Chief engineer (Naohiko) Saito and his team of engineers and mechanics worked hard to hone the GR Yaris, enabling me to win the championship in my debut year.
I feel that this was thanks to the team. I merely drive the car, and they really made it an easy car to drive.
And now, the long-awaited WRC event finally happened, and I was able to take part.
Even though I was competing in Takamoto’s shadow, taking part made me realize that even in the All Japan Rally, we generally drive less than half the distance of WRC events.
Since I’ve had little chance to race such long rallies, I was worried about how I would fare.
But right from the recce, it felt like, “Wow, this is the WRC!” The distances, the atmosphere… spectators waving from the roadside, and so many fans at the venues.
This is what the WRC is all about! This has to carry on, no matter what! The WRC has come to Japan! I found myself overwhelmed by these feelings.
I also drove the same roads where long ago I used to ride around on my bicycle, which was incredibly memorable.
As for how I would rate my son… Well, I did beat him in the power stage. How about a round of applause!
Unable to sit quietly by, the younger Katsuta jumped in, only to face even sterner words from his other father…
I have an excuse, I have an excuse! Dad had four rain tires, while I only had one!
Note: The final day of Rally Japan was rainy, putting Takamoto (who had mostly selected tires for dry conditions) at a disadvantage.
But (to begin with) the performance of your cars is different!
Note: In Rally Japan, Takamoto competed in a WRC car while his father Norihiko drove an All Japan Rally vehicle.
My car is quite a bit faster.
That’s because you’re the professional…
As it stands, I’m going after Takamoto’s spot, while Morizo is gunning for both Takamoto’s spot and mine, so we all have to be at our best!
Takamoto’s real father calmed the heated debate and threw his son a bit of a lifeline.
Is Morizo faster than WRC drivers?
Akio moved on to another topic.
Rally Japan was the final round of this season, which made it easier for everyone to stay on an extra week for our Rally Challenge. Would you mind telling us a little bit about how you guys spent that week?
The day after Rally Japan finished was a very special day for us.
In the morning, we visited the Toyota Automobile Museum and after that, there was the so-called “Morizo Challenge.” This was an important contest in which we drivers faced off against Morizo.
We competed by driving the GR Yaris and 86 once each (on a dirt course), but the most important duel was between myself and Morizo.
First up in the GR Yaris (first run), I drove quite well and was two seconds faster than Morizo. I figured, “I’ve got this!” … but the second run in the 86 was no good. I ended up losing to him overall.
But the crucial point I want to share here is that I lost by just 0.09 seconds!
I’m truly disappointed that I lost. Still, I want to make one thing clear… I wasn’t the only one who lost! Morizo also beat Kalle! I tell you, Morizo is a really great driver!
Only Evans beat me (laughs).
Beating WRC drivers with meticulous strategy
Morizo revealed how he managed to win.
You can’t expect to win against world-class pros by competing normally.
That’s why, even though these guys had never driven this course before, they only had one (prep) run, during which they were not allowed to take the wheel. Still, even in a new car and on new roads, these drivers instantly own it.
Meanwhile, I knew the course like the back of my hand, having honed the GR Yaris there. So that was the context for our showdown.
On top of that, we didn’t tell them they would be driving a different car on the second run, which they found out just beforehand. I hope you will appreciate that this (handicap) is what it takes to narrow the gap between us.
Akio starts spilling secrets
Next, Akio explained why Latvala described their contest as “the most important duel.”
Actually, Latvala and I have an ongoing personal competition… At the Fuji 24 Hours Race, we tried to see who would win (on lap times), and now this was round two.
In the Super Taikyu, we ended with a draw, but this time I won on my home turf. And for the third round, we are thinking of battling it out on the ice in Finland next year.
Just like that, Akio leaked the first bit of news: a Morizo vs. Latvala ice-driving duel in Finland. And there was more…
And what will be the winner’s prize? On the line is the car he drove (in the WRC).
As it happened, during the (Rally Japan) SS (special stage) in Okazaki, Taka, Kalle, and I had some time to talk.
Kalle said to me, “I have a museum, and I would love to display this year’s championship car there. What do you say?”
At the time, I told him, “No, no, no, you don’t get it that easy. Even Latvala has to battle me to earn his cars… So, you’ll have to beat me!”
That said, seeing as he is a world champion, I gave it to him as a reward. But Latvala hasn’t got his yet.
Out came the second revelation: Kalle Rovanperä’s reward for winning the title is the Rally1 car he drove to victory! There was still more to come…
One day, I think we’ll plan something like a Kalle Rovanperä edition of the GR Yaris.
Many people are probably thinking, “If a Morizo edition exists, shouldn’t there be a Kalle Rovanperä version?” You can look forward to something from Toyota on that front.
Number three! The launch of the GR Yaris Kalle Rovanperä Edition!
Companies tend to keep such future product releases tightly under wraps. The standard response is, “We can’t reveal anything about our product plans.” Yet here was Akio sharing the news unprompted, which made the release all the more exciting.
Akio doesn’t stop at three
The discussion was not over yet…
Incidentally, in our demo run earlier, Latvala and I were driving a car (built) for Rally2 (regulations).
Rally1 are the cars that these guys (Rovanperä and Takamoto) compete in for our factory team. And then (in the categories below) there are Rally2, Rally3, and Rally4.
From Rally2 down, most of the competitors are privateers, and Toyota does not yet have a car in these categories. That’s where “the black car” that Latvala and I drove in today’s demo run comes in.
Next year, Katsuta senior will race that car in the All Japan Rally. To make the championship even more exciting, Latvala has informally agreed to participate in the All Japan Rally event in Hokkaido.
If the personal competition between us remains unsettled, I think the results at that event will play a big role in deciding the winner, so I hope you will keep an eye on how things unfold.
Although Norihiko’s entry in the All Japan Rally in a Rally2 car had already been made public, Akio had let two other bits of news slip.
Jari-Matti Latvala was to compete in the All Japan Rally Hokkaido round (Rally Hokkaido)! And with Morizo also taking part, Rally Hokkaido would be the next stage after Finland for their head-to-head duel.
A team that doesn’t like to lose
With those last two snippets, the leaks were plugged up for the time being. Latvala picked up the conversation.
The pressure just keeps growing, but I’m going to do what I can to overcome it and finish on top! My motivation is sky-high. I’m super motivated to battle it out against Morizo!
However, I will say this again, Morizo is a really, really great driver, so I have to make sure I’m at the top of my game every time. I’m playing to win. I really want that car, which means so much to me, and I’m going to give it my all.
I feel very honored to have this opportunity to compete in Rally Hokkaido in a Rally2 car, and I would like to once again express my gratitude. Thank you very much.
This duel with Morizo is going on in many places, and even though it is tough, I’m enjoying myself. I love this kind of competition! I think I speak for everyone on the team when I say I hate to lose. We don’t like losing!
I would agree with that. Even at the Gamagori race, (it was like) “Why are these world-class guys taking this so seriously?” You’d be surprised how competitive our (Toyota rally) members are.
At the same time, even though they are very competitive, their commitment to making great cars and the way they treat fans is truly wonderful. This is a rally team with teamwork.
I believe this team character stems from Latvala as team principal and the attitude he always displays, which positively influences everyone from younger members to legendary drivers. As team owner, I am very grateful.
Piecing the leaks together
Two days before the talk session, Toyota unveiled its rally team setup for the coming year. The press announcement covers every aspect of rally, from top to bottom:
1. The WRC team setup, including Takamoto Katsuta’s promotion to the factory-backed team
2. Norihiko Katsuta’s entry in the All Japan Rally with a Rally2 car (under development)
3. Tomoyuki Shinkai competing in the All Japan Rally with a sports automatic transmission (also under development)
4. The schedule for Toyota’s grassroots rally event, Rally Challenge
Toyota was already engaged in all these categories, but the key takeaway this time is the commitment to building “customer-oriented cars” that can compete at any level.
While the Rally2 category discussed in the talk event is for advanced drivers, Akio also mentioned Rally3 and Rally4.
Note: Higher numbers indicate cars with lower specs that accommodate a wider range of drivers. Rally2 and 3 cars are 4WD, while those in 4 are FWD.
Meanwhile, the sports automatic transmission will lead to “two-pedal” rally cars that have only accelerator and brake pedals, with no clutch. In other words, Toyota is developing a product that will make it easier for beginners to get into rally.
Note: Although not mentioned in the announcement, Toyota Vice Chairman Shigeru Hayakawa drove a GR Yaris equipped with this sports automatic transmission at Rally Challenge.
Commenting on the team announcement, Akio said, “The challenge is not only to make a winning car for us, but also to make a winning car for our customers.” With a Rovanperä edition and other new additions, the GR Yaris family looks set to continue growing.
A final bit of news…
With the talk session coming to a close, host Akio addressed the audience, saying, “We don’t want this to be the end of Rally Japan, do we? We want it to continue, right?”
Then, spotting Toyota City Mayor Toshihiko Ota in the crowd, Akio called him up on stage. “The mayor of Toyota City is here with us… would you mind joining us up here for a moment?”
Note: Seeking to host WRC events in 2023 and beyond, Toyota City established an FIA World Rally Championship Japan Preparatory Committee.
We’re joined by the mayor of Toyota City. Mayor, I believe you have long wished that viewers around the world could see the roads of Toyota City, the roads of Japan as part of an international WRC event.
What did you think this time? How much of that ambition was fulfilled?
Having heard the (drivers’) earlier comments about the roads being narrow, winding, and difficult to drive, I find it a little hard to respond…
In a good way! We mean that in a good way!
How can that be good? (laughs) In any case, the reason we’re able to race on Japanese mountain roads is because people live there.
Japan’s mountains offer water, air, and a place of solace for the people who live in them. I hope this event becomes an opportunity to not only share the value of the mountains with people in Japan and abroad, but also to remind all of us how important these mountains are to our lives.
Akio’s next question for the mayor was more direct.
Will there be a Rally Japan next year? Or no? Will you do it?
If I told all these fans that the event wasn’t running next year, they’d probably throw rocks at me! Of course, we want to continue!
That’s true. And in order to keep going, we need all of your support.
Even with carbon neutrality and the other challenges we face, there are still lots of people who love cars, love driving, and love making cars.
We want to ensure that this world can continue to exist, and we’ll need even more support in the coming years. These guys are going to do their best, so please keep cheering them on. That’s the note I want I want to use to end today’s talk.
Next season’s WRC calendar was announced on November 25 with Rally Japan again listed as the final round, to be held on November 16 to 19. Next year, fans in Japan will once again have a chance to see these drivers racing live.
Though there’s no telling what the future holds, many sincerely hope that Rally Japan can become an annual autumn tradition.