Japanese manufacturers have played a considerable part in the history of the World Rally Championship. Both Subaru and Mitsubishi gained significant street cred off the back of their achievements in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But even before that, Toyota was putting the Land of the Rising Sun on the rallying map.
Carlos Sainz claimed his and Toyota’s first world championship on Pirelli tyres in 1990. Three more drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles followed before Toyota left rallying at the turn of the century and focused its resources on Formula 1 and Le Mans instead.
In 2017, Toyota returned to the WRC after the company’s enthusiastic president Akio Toyoda formed an unlikely alliance with Tommi Makinen: the man who delivered four championships to Mitsubishi as a driver.
Makinen and his team in deepest Finland were tasked with turning the humble little Yaris hatchback into a World Rally Car. Blessed with some of the world’s greatest rallying roads in their backyard as a testing ground, they produced a car that was capable of winning on just its second start in Sweden in 2017.
With its wide wheel arches and enormous rear wing, the Toyota Yaris WRC bears little resemblance to the road car. Yet that’s exactly how each one starts life – as a regular Yaris chassis – before it’s stripped out and made as light as possible. Then, a rollcage is added – one of many features that help to make the current generation of rally cars incredibly safe.
From there, everything that’s fitted to the car – including the engine, gearbox and suspension – is specially designed to offer maximum performance in the extreme environments served up by the WRC calendar.
Toyota’s Gazoo Racing arm goes by the mantra ‘pushing the limits for better’ and the Yaris WRC has lived up to that with its impressive rate of improvement. The team overcame reliability setbacks to claim the manufacturers’ title at the second attempt in 2018 before Ott Tanak scored the drivers’ title in 2019.
Tänak’s subsequent move to Hyundai allowed Toyota to start 2020 with a clean slate on the driver front, with Makinen bringing in six-time world champion Sebastien Ogier together with rally winner Elfyn Evans and teenage rookie Kalle Rovanpera. Although the team was aiming to reclaim both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ crowns, nobody knew how quickly the new drivers would adapt to their new car.
They need not have worried. Evans and Ogier claimed victories in Sweden and Mexico respectively after both fighting for the win on debut on the Monte Carlo Rally.
“The car is giving me great confidence, and in changeable conditions like we’ve had here, that’s really worth a lot,” Evans said following his second career win in Sweden, a result that marked him out as a true championship contender for the first time. “It has been very enjoyable to drive so far and hopefully we can carry this feeling onto gravel in the events to come.”
Rovanpera has impressed too, the 19-year-old Finn becoming the WRC’s youngest ever podium finisher on Rally Sweden when he stole third from Ogier on the final stage. With two fifth-place finishes alongside that, he’s yet to put a foot wrong: a promising sign for his future.
“It’s been a really good beginning to the season for me,” he says. “It’s nice to have had clean rallies without any big mistakes and some proper pace sometimes.”
For now, it’s Ogier heading the championship race, an ominous sign for his rivals given that he’s still trying to feel at home in the Yaris. And while the new drivers are tasked with extracting the most out of the current car, the team in Puuppola is working hard on its successor. This will be based on the fourth-generation Yaris that was revealed at the end of 2019, with the new-look car on sale later this year.