The season concludes: The WRC returns to Japan


November 18, 2022

Written by: Chris Hosie

Image Credit: wrc.com

After a long and hard fought season, the stars and cars of the World Rally Championship make the long awaited trip to Japan for the final round of the WRC. This year sees the event take place on tarmac for the first time. It is also the first trip to Japan since 2010.

Rally Japan has been an event many in the rally world have been waiting for with great levels of excitement and, to a degree, impatience. Due to the event being canceled twice in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19. But, in 2022, the wait was over, the WRC was back. For the Stars in Rally1 it would be a full on race to the finish as the drivers and Manufacturers titles had been wrapped up in Spain, last time out. However, the WRC2 title was still to be settled and the overall fight for second was still to be resolved too.

The event began on Thursday with a quick spectator stage. Sebastian Ogier gave the Japanese fans plenty to celebrate as he claimed the opening stage victory for the Toyota Brand. Craig Breen was close behind him, coming just one tenth from winning the stage and the whole top 8 was covered by 2.2 seconds. Emil Lindholm came 10th on the stage and took the early lead in WRC2. With fellow Finn, Sami Pajari, taking second. Kajetan Kajetanowicz came third in class, a crucial detail as he was two places behind his chief championship rival. Another driver having a fine time in WRC2 Was former F1 and current Super GT star, Heikki Kovalainen, ended the first stage fifth in class. A superb start to his first ever World Championship outing since his F1 days and his first ever WRC event start.

Friday soon came and it was another day filled with exciting action and incredible “ドラマ” (drama). Ogier led the Field on the first stage but, as the day wore on, he would lose that lead to the two drivers battling for second in the points. Thierry Neuville and Elfyn Evans both passed the Frenchman and engaged in a real Samurai style “決闘” (duel) for the rally lead. The two globe-trotting WRC warriors even sharing the lead at one point. By the end of the day however, it was Evans who emerged as the new rally leaded but only by a margin of just over three seconds. Ogier would end the day in the top six with Japanese star Takamoto Katsuta having a great first day on home soil. He would end the day in fifth. Ott Tanak had a rather steady day on Friday. He would finish it in fourth place.

M-Sport had another day of 50/50 emotions. On the first stage of the day, Craig Breen had high hopes of taking the lead of the event. But disaster would strike again. He went too fast into a right hand bend and smashed into a barrier. He and his co-driver were fine but his chance of claiming another win for the Cumbria based squad was, like his Ford, “ひどく損傷した” (severely damaged). Gus Greensmith had a much better day ending it in the top six. However, he had his own issues as he had a broken driveshaft during the morning that caused a few headaches for him and his mechanics.

Newly crowned champion, Kalle Rovanpera, had a fairly good day. finishing it in the top three. Despite this, he too had a scare on SS2 with smoke entering his car. thankfully nothing of a terrifying nature came of it. The same couldn’t be said for the Hyundai of Dani Sordo. His car suffered a fire on SS2. It started off small but then grew to the point where Sordo had to stop mid stage and try to fight it himself. This failed and the car burnt right down to its frame. Both he and his co-driver were, thankfully, ok. The same though couldn’t be said for the car and It was rally over for the Spaniard.

In WRC2, it was a day the championship was veritably decided. Lindholm led the field at the start of the day but he would drop down to third thanks to the pace of those behind him. Teemu Suninen had a belter of a day, charging to the front of the class in his Hyundai I20 Rally2. Sami Pajari was close to follow he would grab second making it a Finnish 1, 2, 3 by the end of the day. Gregoire Munster and Fabrizio Zaldivar would round out the top five and Kovalainen would finish the day in sixth. The day would be a disaster for Poland’s Kajetan Kajetanowicz. He would crash out in a tunnel on SS2 and with it end his ambitions of being the WRC2 champion. Now all Lindholm had to do for the rest of the weekend was simply finish and the glory would be his.

Saturday was soon upon the サムライ・ウォリアーズ (Samurai Warriors) of the WRC and it would prove to be a day of Titanic battles. The main battle to focus on was the fight for the lead. Evans led the field into the penultimate day of competition with his slim lead and spent most of the day trying to keep it. A task that grew harder as Neuville chipped away at the Welshman’s lead. Then a puncture for the Welsh Toyota star allowed the Belgian to take the rally lead and never look back for the rest of the day. Tanak was also having a good day, maintaining a consistent pace all through the day. he would finish the day in third with a hard charging Ogier in fourth. The Frenchman setting fast times but, for once, unable to match the pace of the leading runners.

Taka Katsuta had a terrific day on Saturday. Despite the odd run in with a banking. He would end the day in fourth place with a chance at a podium should the leading three hit problems on Sunday. Greensmith was still going strong in the top five with another consistent run. Same thing, couldn’t be said for Rovanpera. He would end the day down in 10th place after issues with his car thanks to front end damage in the morning loop. M-Sport star Breen returned to action on Saturday and, despite finishing outside the points, he set some truly incredible times that kept the other drivers guessing.

In WRC2, it was a smooth day for Emil Lindholm. He started the day in third. Then, with a terrific drive, finished the day with the WRC2 lead and like most of the top WRC2 runners was in the top 10. In sixth to be precise with Sami Pajari in second. The former Junior and WRC3 star having taken the lead in the morning from a struggling Suninen. The Hyundai star was now down to fourth thanks to the blistering pace of the Skodas. Zaldivar was also going well and Kovalainen was to end his day in fifth in the WRCs premiere development class. American Sean Johnston would be behind him in sixth with his Citroen. Elsewhere, Mauro Miele was the leader in the WRC2 Masters class and Lindholm was in charge of the WRC2 Junior class.

Sunday was soon upon the WRC and it was not only the last day of the rally it was also the last day of the 2022 World Championship. The day started well for the Belgian rally leader. He was immediately on the pace and doing his utmost to keep the charging Evans behind him. Evans too was on a mission, one that could decide not only the rally win but also the battle for second in the points standings. Then disaster struck the Welshman. He suffered another puncture that dropped him down to a frustrating fifth place. Thus, allowing Neuville to take a commanding lead and come home as the winner of Rally Japan 2022. He was followed home by his teammate Tanak who made it a Hyundai 1, 2 on Japanese soil.

The Japanese fans were also celebrating. Taka Katsuta also benefited from his teammate’s dramas and came home to take a very well-deserved podium in front of his home crowd. Sebastian Ogier came home a respectable fourth with Gus Greensmith rounding off his year with a sixth place finish. Kalle Rovanpera came home 10th overall and seventh in the Rally1 ranks with Craig Breen also coming home, all be it, out of the points.

The WRC2 class would provide the final dramas of the season. Sami Pajari lead the field into the final day only to suffer dramas that put him right down to fifth in class. At the same time, Gregoire Munster put on a terrific show on Sunday. Storming to the lead and taking an upset victory to round off another fantastic season for the WRC2 class. But, the real spotlight was on Finland’s Emil Lindholm. He came home third in Japan and scored a well deserved podium. But, in doing so and with Kajetanowicz having crashed on Friday. Lindholm became the 2022 WRC2 Champion of the World. This result also allowed TokSport to claim the teams title and Lindholm added a delicious cherry to the top of a championship winning cake by winning the WRC2 Junior class and winning that title as well.

Elsewhere, Suninen came home a splendid second place and Kovalainen, on his WRC event debut, claimed a fourth place finish in WRC2. Another driver celebrating was Italian star Mauro Miele. He won the WRC2 Masters class and with the help of consistent finished throughout the year, he claimed the WRC2 Masters title for 2022. Another Skoda driver finding championship success on the world stage.

And so the story comes to an end. Not just in Japan but also for the 2022 season. It has been a truly incredible and spectacular journey all around the world. As the world's finest drivers, cars and teams came, saw and conquered all the challenges that the season laid before them. Some drivers finding great success and others tasting bitter defeat. It was also a milestone year as the WRC welcomed its Hybrid Era and an era of using renewable fuels. However, at the end of the day Toyota, once again showed everyone who was boss in the WRC. So its time to end 2022 and bid farewell to this fantastic and memorable season. Join us again in January 2023 when the stars and cars of the WRC and their fabulous support classes return to where it all started this year. The legendary motorsport playground that is Rally Monte Carlo. But until then, thanks for watching and have a great festive season.

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