Rally Monte-Carlo was at its unpredictable best when it kicked off the 2021 World Rally Championship last month. For Takamoto Katsuta to finish the infamous season-opener in one piece was an accomplishment.
To secure his best WRC result to-date, sixth overall, was just an added bonus for Katsuta. Toyota’s Japanese star has his focus firmly set on closing the gap to WRC’s establishment.
“Monte-Carlo was a big challenge for me,” admitted Katsuta. “Especially in the beginning because I didn’t get to try Pirelli’s new slick tyres during my pre-event test.
“I had no idea about how the tyres were working.
“I was pretty stressed about that, I mean with myself because it’s unknown and I knew it was going to be very difficult.
“We decided to go step-by-step to build my confidence.
“I was able to finish every stage without big problems. Of course, there is still a big gap to the top, but in the rally I could build my confidence after every stage.
“There were some good steps, and great times as well. So it was a very good experience for me.”
Katsuta managed three top-five stage times in Monte-Carlo but there is no doubt he was disappointed to finish over three minutes behind fifth-placed Dani Sordo. The struggles of fellow WRC undergrads Gus Greensmith and Pierre-Louis Loubet showed just how difficult this year’s Rally Monte-Carlo was.
Thankfully for Katsuta, his post-rally debrief brought some answers which should help him going forward.
“After the rally of course I was not very, very happy about my performance.
“But after I did my debriefing with the engineers, I could see where I was losing time compared to the other three drivers in the team. Also, I could see where I am even the fastest in the team, you know, I could find some positives.
“Like the split times compared to the other three drivers. That gives me more confidence and gives me more information on which areas I need to improve.
“For sure I was a lot better than last year in Monte-Carlo.
“It was very clear from my debrief where I am losing time. It’s not easy to improve, but I try to improve as much as possible, of course.
“I know how I can prepare for the rally and I have a much better relationship with my gravel crew including Juho Hanninen now. He’s doing very well and we are both getting to understand what kind of information I need.
“To be honest, I’m really looking forward to next year in Monte-Carlo if I can be there.”
It’s 18 months since Katsuta made his first world championship appearance in a World Rally Car. The ex-circuit racer had been driving a Tommi Makinen prepared Ford Fiesta R5 in WRC 2 up until his top-level debut on Rally Germany.
His best WRC 2 result came on Rally Sweden in 2018. Katsuta topped the R5 category and narrowly missed out on a top ten overall finish.
Relocating to Finland from native Japan has helped Katsuta become surprisingly comfortable on the high-speed Nordic stages. He’s definitely one to watch on Arctic Rally Finland later this month.
After losing several WRC outings last year Toyota’s WRC Challenge Program driver is determined to push on in his development and become fully comfortable driving the Yaris WRC at maximum attack.
“Yeah, I must say now I have more understanding about the car. And obviously, Rally2 to a World Rally Car is a huge step.
“If I make an example it is like Formula 3 to Formula 1, it’s a huge step.
“You can drive okay because somehow a World Rally Car is easier to drive than any other car, but the speed is obviously very, very high and the car can do everything.
“If you are not confident you cannot fight anywhere with other drivers.
“So now I’m trying to get the proper experience of when I am pushing I know what is happening with a car.”
Katsuta’s Arctic Rally Finland hopes
Katsuta looked to have found the Yaris’s sweet spot on the WRC’s post-lockdown return at Rally Estonia last year. With one day remaining the Japanese driver found himself fifth overall. He was ahead of Esapekka Lappi, Teemu Suninen, and just a minute behind the home hero and eventual rally-winner, Ott Tanak.
It was the first time we have seen Katsuta consistently punching in competitive times on every single stage. He was enjoying Estonia’s rollercoaster roads but unfortunately, they bit back on Stage 13 when his Yaris slid off-line and barrel-rolled into the stage-side undergrowth.
The trials continued in Sardinia and Monza but a Power Stage victory on the season finale once again proved the potential that lies within Katsuta.
“Sometimes I’m making an error like last year, but everything is good experience and good to understand what will happen.
“I can see lots of positive things and some negative with my driving. And obviously I still have many improvements.
“So for sure, I am a much much better driver than 2019, but still, I have to build my confidence with the World Rally Car.
“When everything is working well the limit is so high, and it’s always so high. When you go to the limit there is a big risk because the speed is so high.
“Also, my situation is not in a manufacturer team. So I am not under the big, big, pressure compared to other drivers.
“I have to take small steps, it’s better to go that way.
“But of course, some rallies I have to push to show them my speed as much as possible and I want to show them what I can do.”
Katsuta also touched on the importance of having the experience of Dan Barritt sitting beside him at each event. While getting comfortable in the World Rally Car is key for Katsuta to unlock his potential pace, having the surety of Barritt’s co-driving ability and knowledge helps keep him at ease.
Now with Hanninen at hand to offer driving and set-up advice, Katsuta has it all covered.
All that is left to do is drive.
Katsuta needs no extra motivation to fulfill his WRC ambitions but there is one event sitting at the end of this year’s calendar that just adds an extra bit of intent.
Katsuta was keen not to get too carried with thoughts of a home season finale as the world’s current pandemic puts uncertainty on any event far away on both the world map and rally calendar.
He was hopeful that the WRC’s return to Japan would recapture the nation’s interest not only in rallying but motorsport as a whole. And what better way to do it than a successful home driver.
No pressure Taka!
Toyota has played a key role in getting the WRC back into the Japanese spotlight. With the prospect of a world rally in Nagoya and the ever-improving Katsuta, Japan’s growing interest in rallying can continue to flourish.
For Katsuta, though, he just wants to rally. And nobody can argue with that.
“Of course I hope Rally Japan happens, but not only Japan because we have many great places around world.
“I just want to rally anywhere.”
Photos courtesy of Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT