Next year, something remarkable will happen: Rally Japan returns to the World Rally Championship calendar after a 10-year absence. Japanese manufacturers have of course marked the history of the sport thanks to companies such as Subaru, Mitsubishi and Toyota, to name but three. Of all of those, only Toyota is still competing in the World Rally Championship today with the Yaris WRC – which has also featured on one-off national events in Finland using Pirelli tyres.
But the most famous Japanese brand of all on the stages was probably Subaru, which quickly established a reputation as the ‘Ferrari of rallying’ thanks to its famous blue and gold colour scheme that transformed their cars from practical transport for farmers into cult objects of desire. All the championships won by Subaru were done so on Pirelli tyres, which have formed an integral part of the Japanese marque’s success story.
The very last title to go to Subaru in 2003 was courtesy of Petter Solberg. It’s incredible that 16 years have passed since the Norwegian won the title: fresh faced and full of youthful enthusiasm. So now aged 44 (and still full of youthful enthusiasm), it’s only right that Petter chose to end his career on the same event where he won the championship: Wales Rally GB. This time, he drove a Volkswagen Polo R5, running of course on Pirelli tyres, together with his long-time codriver Phil Mills. The Norwegian duly won the WRC2 category on his last rally – and was presented with a P Zero Formula 1 wind tunnel tyre afterwards to mark the occasion and nearly two decades of hard-fought success together.
As one chapter closes, another one opens. Petter was part of a two-car team this year together with his 18-year-old son Oliver, who only passed his driving test a couple of weeks ago in Sweden. As a result, this was Oliver’s very first WRC rally while it was father’s last. For the younger Solberg .Wales Rally GB was a slightly more trying experience, as he was waylaid by mechanical problems right from the beginning.
But Oliver has actually already made his WRC car debut, at the tender age of 16. That experience came at the Bologna Motor Show two years ago in a Ford Fiesta WRC equipped with Pirelli tyres, where the Italian firm highlighted its focus on developing young drivers at the Bettega Memorial Rallysprint. It’s a philosophy that has had plenty of success over the years, as the current championship leader (and Wales Rally GB winner) Ott Tanak of Toyota is a former Pirelli Star Driver.
This year it looks like the Estonian is on course to claim his first title, with a convincing lead in the standings. And Oliver is very clear on his own ambitions in this direction: “I want to become a factory driver and go as far as I can in this sport. This has been my dream for all of my life and I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had the support of my dad and several great partners to help me to get there.”
Expect to see him on the full WRC2 championship in 2020, if everything comes together, and from there…who knows. Unlike the Hills and the Rosbergs in Formula 1, there’s never been a father-son combination winning the World Rally Championship. Oliver stands the strongest chance yet.
But what of Rally Japan? Next year’s brand-new WRC event will end the season in November and be based in Nagoya, just 60 kilometres from Suzuka: the home of the Japanese Grand Prix. Japanese fans in Formula 1 are known for their passion and creativity, and rally fans are no different. Many of them in the past donned blonde wigs on the stages as a sign of support for Solberg in the Subaru: their rallying equivalent of Ayrton Senna in Japanese popular culture. Japanese fans were also fascinated by his blue eyes and blonde hair, which is not something you see every day on the streets of Tokyo: one of the reasons why they also go mad for Kimi Raikkonen in Formula 1.
The recent reinstatement of Rally Japan only underlines the country’s return to the forefront of global motorsport with both Honda and Toyota on the cusp of greatness this year. Unusually compared to the past, the 2020 Rally Japan will be an asphalt rally held on tight and twisty mountain roads with bad weather quite likely: think of the time when the Sanremo Rally used to be held in autumn and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. With WRC back on the calendar, Toyota also winning the World Endurance race at Fuji, and Suzuka coming up next in F1, it’s been a fantastic few weeks for Japanese motorsport.
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