WORDS BY PAUL HANAPHY | IMAGES BY RED BULL
In just two months time, the World Rally Championship will be heading across the Pacific Ocean, ready to tackle Rally Japan for the second time in two years, and this year, attending fans will be treated to something a little bit different.
Rather than rounding off the WRC season with a series of traditional rally stages, the event will pit drivers against each other, as they race one-on-one in an all-new stadium superspecial.
Reintroduced last campaign after a 12-year absence, Rally Japan is known for its high-speed mountainous stages winding along treacherous gravel tracks. On its return, organisers say the event’s familiar look and feel still proved hugely popular among the country’s fans. However, this begs an obvious question: why have they opted to change a winning formula?
“When we returned, it seemed like fans couldn’t wait to see it, and the drivers were really impressed with the reaction,” explained Rally Japan's Keita Takashima.
“But a lot of fans simply couldn’t get tickets to the superspecial stage. It goes to show how big the response was last year.
“To address this, we’ve introduced a stadium SS so as many fans as possible can see it - that’s our biggest motivation.”
Following in the footsteps of 2022’s Greek superspecial at the 65,000-seater Olympic Stadium in Athens, this year’s WRC season finale will now hold stages at the Toyota Stadium.
It’s anticipated that hosting a superspecial at the 45,000 capacity Aichi venue will provide better ticket access, but it isn’t just being introduced to meet demand. In fact, rather than catching a glimpse of drivers speeding by, the hosts expect it to offer fans a more immersive experience, with priority ticket holders even getting the chance to walk the track.
“The thing about regular stages is you only see the car going past at the start or the end,” added Takashima. “You can follow on your phone, but you don’t really get to see the entire thing. In a compact stadium, you get all the action right from the start to finish.
“Seeing two cars run at the same time in the middle of a stadium, even with all the stadiums around the world, it’s not something that you get to see all that much. It’s going to make Rally Japan 2023 quite special.”
This year’s superspecial isn’t the only stage being held away from the Hokkaidō roads the rally has called home since its introduction in 2002. Set to be an all-asphalt affair, Rally Japan 2023 will be held on 19 new stages, starting in Toyota City, 40 kilometres south of Nagoya.
The event’s detour from its traditional gravel trails will see it visit new locations across the country. According to Takashima, these stages will run through small towns and cities that offer fans a closer view of the action, in a way that it’s hoped will also drive tourism.
“You may have heard, a lot of these small towns in Japan's countryside have a shrinking population, and are struggling to maintain economic prosperity,” said Takashima.
“Through this rally, gathering a lot of attention within Japan and around the world, we’re hoping to increase investment in these beautiful places that’ve been having a few issues.”
It could be said that Rally Japan’s revamp has been timed perfectly to coincide with the growth of Takamoto Katsuta’s profile. Ahead of the rally, Toyota City’s Toshihiko Ohta has emphasised how Katsuta’s top-three finish at last year’s event will be “fresh in the minds” of fans, and the prospect of a repeat podium could see supporters flock to see the home favourite.
Japan’s new-look rally will also allow it to shine a light on Kalle Rovanperä and Elfyn Evans’ overwhelming success this season. WRC’s leading drivers are flying the flag high for Toyota’s Gazoo Racing outfit, and holding part of the rally at a stadium will only offer Japan’s largest car manufacturer a bigger platform on which to demonstrate its automotive prowess.
“For the fans, having a Japanese driver do well would obviously get them excited, and Toyota City is a sort of centre for Japanese car manufacturing, so attracting interest in the country’s automotive industry is obviously a very big goal,” admitted Takashima.
“But if the stadium’s packed and it seems like the whole crowd is going off, we’d also call that a really big success!”
Rally Japan 2023 runs from 16-19 November 2023, with a rally around the Toyota stadium scheduled for each day of the event.