The TOYOTA GAZOO Racing Rally Challenge Program has achieved its most significant result so far, with young Japanese driver Takamoto Katsuta claiming a remarkable WRC2 victory on Rally Sweden. The other members of the Program also displayed stage-winning pace despite being delayed by mechanical issues: Hiroki Arai ultimately came seventh in WRC2 while Japanese co-driver Sayaka Adachi also reached the finish in her first WRC event alongside Finnish driver Jarkko Nikara.
Rally Sweden is the only full winter rally on the FIA World Rally Championship calendar. This year the event was characterised by a larger amount of snowfall before the event than usual: this meant the stages were lined with large snow banks, which drivers can ‘lean’ against to carry more speed through the corners.
Katsuta and Arai were making their second appearances on Rally Sweden after gaining valuable experience in 2017. They were up against tough competition in WRC2, including many drivers with more experience of the event. For Adachi, this was her first time competing in Sweden, her first WRC appearance as part of the Rally Challenge Program and her first time competing in a Ford Fiesta R5 (the same car used by Katsuta and Arai): a step up from the R4-specification Subaru Impreza that she and Nikara are used to.
Katsuta and co-driver Marko Salminen led the WRC2 category from the second stage, where they scored the first ever WRC2 stage win for the Program. In total he set the fastest time in the category on nine of the 19 stages. He lost the lead only briefly, on the first stage on Saturday morning, but immediately claimed it back and thereafter resisted the pressure from his rivals to win by 4.5 seconds.
Arai, co-driven by Glenn Macneall, scored a stage win on Saturday afternoon and came second to Katsuta on three other stages. He was running fourth in the category on Friday before an electrical issue on SS7 forced him to stop twice in the stage. Then, on SS13 a small off caused the engine to overheat and cut out mid-stage, losing him six minutes.
Adachi and Nikara were forced to retire from the first full day of the rally after only one stage, with an off into a snow bank causing a broken radiator. They restarted on Saturday and suffered a misfire, but on Sunday morning they showed impressive performance, setting the fastest time for an R5 car in both of the runs over the Likenäs stage.
Akio Toyoda (President, Toyota Motor Corporation):
“Takamoto Katsuta, Congratulations on your win in the WRC2 class at Rally Sweden!
When Toyota decided to come back to WRC after 17 years, the first picture in my head was of a Toyota car running on WRC stages, and the next picture I had was of a Japanese driver and co-driver in the car. This was because if this became reality, I believed there would be more rally fans in Japan who understand how wonderful this sport and its culture are. That’s why we started the TOYOTA GAZOO Racing Rally Challenge Program to support young drivers to progress to an international level.
It’s been two and half years since they started their challenge and it’s a really great job that Katsuta has achieved. He showed the possibility of my dream of Japanese driver in a Japanese car in the WRC. I’m so happy about it.
We have to remember there are two more Japanese members of this program; Hiroki Arai and Sayaka Adachi who are also aiming to challenge in the WRC someday. Both of them also showed their improvements by achieving top times in their class. I think there are more people now sharing the same dream as me thanks to these three who really showed the talents and potential. I hope they encourage each other and continue to improve more and more to make their and our dreams come true.
I also want to thank Marko Salminen, Glenn Macneall and Jarko Nikara who competed with them and helped their improvement, and of course the instructors and the team who fully supported them all the time. Thank you very much!”
Tommi Mäkinen (Team Principal, Tommi Mäkinen Racing):
“The result achieved here in Sweden by Takamoto is absolutely fantastic. Everybody is very surprised with how well he handled the pressure of leading the event. He was up against some very quick drivers who were very experienced in these conditions. This result should be very good for his confidence. Now he knows how it feels and he can keep going this way. It is very promising for his future. This is the best thing that could have happened for the whole Rally Challenge Program, and shows how well our collaboration is going.”
“To win WRC2 here at Rally Sweden feels amazing. I had to push and stay concentrated for the whole rally because Tidemand is a very fast driver who I respect a lot. On Friday I had a spin, and this was a good experience for me because I understood that I needed to calm down a bit more. But I still had to push hard on Saturday because our starting position was different compared to Friday. We did not have any R5 cars in front of us and the grip was not so good and it was harder to see the lines. I had quite a few moments in the stages but we managed to keep our position until the finish. Thank you to everybody in the team and everyone who has supported me.”
“This has been a tough event for us because of the mechanical issues. After the problem on Friday where we lost a minute, we just tried to do the best we could on Saturday. Then the engine stopped and we had to stop for six or seven minutes so we were totally out of the fight for the podium after that. Then we just tried to take the car to the finish and it was a little bit difficult to get the motivation back, but there are some positives we can take from this rally, such as the good speed that we showed.”
“On Friday and Saturday it was quite stressful because of the technical problems including the misfire, but our mechanics found a solution and the final day has been good. We set some very good times in the morning and I am also quite pleased with my pace note reading. I was able to get the confidence back. This was my first time in an R5 car but the Finnish roads that we usually compete on are very fast, while the Swedish stages are narrower and more twisty, so the speed did not feel so different to me. There is less distance between the corners here though so there is less chance for a break in the notes: this was a big difference, and good experience for me.”
“On Friday I did a small mistake and we had a spin and broke the radiator, and then on Saturday we had a misfire with the engine. On Sunday though the car was working well and so were the pace-notes. Sayaka has done very well. There was just a few small things – not big mistakes but more routine things, like being a bit late in some places, but this can happen. Sometimes it was very busy, and in this car we could take a lot more speed through some corners so in those places it can be difficult. Generally the feeling is good and we are learning a lot together.”
Jouni Ampuja (TOYOTA GAZOO Racing Rally Challenge Program instructor):
“This has been a great weekend for us. Both drivers have shown their speed, and for Takamoto to win is a great result. We are certainly getting closer to the targets we have set. For them to have come from Japan and be driving these speeds in Sweden in quite specialised conditions it proves that there is potential and shows that the things that we are doing with them are working. Both drivers are very clever now with the pace-notes, which is important on high speed stages, and the experience they gained here last year has helped. Hiroki is close to being on the same pace as Takamoto: now he just needs that consistency. Sayaka has gained lots of experience this weekend: to do a WRC event is another level.”