Automotive giant, Toyota, joins four of the world’s 10 biggest car manufacturers in the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship, adding another dimension to what is poised to be the start of a new and dynamic era at the premier level of the sport.
The Japanese car maker has a long and illustrious history in rallying where it was first represented in 1972 with the Celica, which finished ninth in the hands of legendary Swede Ove Andersson on the RAC Rally. Toyota Team Europe – following in the footsteps of Andersson Motorsport which ran Corollas and Celicas – was subsequently formed by the Swede in 1975 and Hannu Mikkola took the team’s first win, in its first season in the FIA World Rally Championship, on the awesome 1000 Lakes Rally.
Some of the biggest names in world rallying have piloted Toyota machinery; Mikkola, Björn Waldegård, Juha Kankkunen, Carlos Sainz, Didier Auriol and Marcus Grönholm – to name but a few – and with their successes brought Toyota three titles in the FIA World Rally Championship for Manufacturers. Sainz, Kankkunen and Auriol also won four Drivers’ Championships behind the wheel of the Celica, Toyota’s most successful rally car.
Absent from the sport since the end of 1999, the world’s second largest car manufacturer by sales – behind automotive and soon-to-be WRC rival Volkswagen – has again chosen the FIA World Rally Championship to showcase its technology. Now running under the banner of Toyota GAZOO Racing, the all-new Yaris WRC will break cover in the series in January 2017 with four-time FIA World Rally Champion Tommi Mäkinen at the helm of the operation. With more than 10,000 kilometres of testing under their belt, Mäkinen is all too aware it is impossible to know where they are before the famous Rallye Monte-Carlo kicks off on 19 January, but the Finn’s plans for an even tougher test programme until the end of the year will help pave the way for a successful return to the WRC for Toyota.
Koei Saga, Team Vice Principal and Senior Managing Officer of Toyota Motor Corporation, talks about the company’s return to a sport that brought many a glory day for its Championship-winning rally cars.
What does it mean for Toyota to be back in the FIA World Rally Championship?
“We want to make ever-better cars, and therefore we are training our people under this slogan. When it comes to rallies, it is a position where we use cars that our customers drive on the roads as well, so this is the best condition to train our engineers and to test our products. The WRC is the summit of competition, so to speak, so we have the best conditions and best rallies to test our cars and our customers will see our team competing in the WRC and share the excitement.”
Why did Toyota feel it was important, and that now was the right time to return to the WRC?
“It is a very big project for Toyota and we are always telling you we want to make ever-better cars, but we have to prove this as well, so we want to show our customers and fans we are also doing something concrete. This is a very good opportunity to show them what we are doing. 2017 is also the year when the regulations change and we have to make our car from scratch, so this is very good timing for us. 2017 is also the 60th anniversary of our first rally in Australia; we had this grand Australian Trial in 1957 so we come back to our roots.”
Is there a sense of anticipation in Japan, with fans now having a home team to support and especially when so many of them will remember Toyota’s successes of the past?
“We have our old traditional fans who know us from our WRC era and of course they are cheering us, and at the same time we want to meet their expectations. But we also want to get new fans, especially the younger generation; we want to reach out to them and have a bigger fan community.”
Setting up a team of people at Tommi Mäkinen Racing must have been the first big challenge, before you could even think about designing a new car?
“That’s right, but we have a very good team leader with Tommi and all the team members are very passionate to make ever-better cars with high speed. We have a very compact facility to get great teamwork together. We started from scratch so it is of course a challenge to get all the staff, but Tommi shared our passion and he also understands our philosophy that we can relate with ‘I love cars!’, see cars as a companion, and he really understands this philosophy and he takes care of this message to his colleagues and our staff, so I really think we have an expert team.”
How much energy has gone into this project; has it been 24/7 since it started?
“The whole of the team, they gave all and everything and they are working 24/7 on this project. They all share this one goal that we want to win, and they have this passion and therefore this works.”
Have there been advantages to designing the Yaris WRC from scratch for the new regulations in 2017, or is it a disadvantage in that Toyota has no current World Rally Car as a benchmark?
“It can be an advantage because we are free of influences from the past when it comes to the design or the legacy we have, but of course it is difficult to have no benchmark. When it comes to rallying it is not just about competitive times, so it is maybe a deficit not to have a car that is now running so that we can compare. However we are always determined to make ideal cars and ever-better cars so we are always pursuing the best, so maybe there is no benchmark needed at all. We have a very good team with a lot of experience so I don’t have to worry so much.”
As a new manufacturer coming to the Championship you have the benefit of unlimited testing. Does this give Toyota an edge over the other manufacturers?
“When it comes to testing the vehicles it is always important to run the cars, and this is an important point, and it is an advantage that we have no limit in the kilometres to run the test because we understand more the more we run the cars. However other companies have, on the other hand, many of the development assets we do not have and they also have the experience that our team hasn’t, so maybe you cannot tell from the beginning that this is the only advantage.”
Do you feel ready for January 2017?
“Yes, the last time we had a victory at this competition was when I was the General Manager of the Motor Sport section, and that is a long time ago. Of course things have changed and I had some concerns, but I could reassure myself that our staff are doing a really really good job, a splendid job. I think of course we will confront many challenges but we from Japan, the headquarters staff, will support the team on site and we all share the ‘one team, one dream’ slogan, so I am very much convinced we will have good results and I’m very much looking forward to the competition.”
Koei Saga and Tommi Mäkinen talk about Toyota’s return to the WRC: