The importance of Toyota’s comeback

This little blog cannot give young, talented drivers a chance to prove themselves, because we’re fresh out of rally cars. But what World Rally Blog can do is give young people, old people, any people a chance to share their thoughts and ideas on the sport we all love. David van den Boom asked if WRB could adopt some of his thoughts on the subject of Toyota’s upcoming WRC comeback. I couldn’t say no, so here is what David van den Boom thinks about this (and few other) topic(s) with no edits on WRB’s side. Opinions expressed here belong to the author.

Toyota announced last week, after years and years of speculation, that they’re, finally, returning to the WRC with the Yaris WRC in 2017. Test drivers Stephane Sarrazin, Sebastian Lindholm and official Toyota junior driver Eric Camilli, who currently competes in WRC2, are going to lead Toyota’s test charge for this and next year. This seems like a wake up call for WRC to finally crank up their marketing plans, but also shows that the Gen-2 WRC rules, first introduced in 2011, have worked according to FIA’s plan.

Now Toyota’s comeback was nothing short of… expected. The reports of Toyota building their own GT86 WRC back in Japan after the 2014 Finland Rally have now been dismissed with the confirmation of the Yaris leading their charge from 2017 onwards. This indicates that the current B-Segment cars are going to stick around in the WRC for quite some time, but what happens with the technical regulations? The FIA suggested to have different engine regulations for the WRC, but how different are they going to be and if we are going to witness various engine types being balanced by something like “Balance of Perfomance”(which is very common in sportscar racing) remains to be unknown. We should know more about this subject at the FIA World Council meeting in June.

Now going back to Toyota’s comeback, the Japanese car maker has a rich history in the WRC. From the days of Ove Andersson driving his 1600GT through the muddy stages of the RAC, the Group B twin-turbo Celica juggling through the the hot and dusty Ivory Coast paths, to the dominant Group A Celica days and the intriguing but somewhat sad ending of Toyota’s WRC campaign with the Corolla WRC.

Now, after 18 years they are going to be back, being at the starting ramp of  the Monte in front of the Casino, having that rally feeling back after years going round in circles.

TMG have been involved in rallying since the very beginning of Toyota’s rally adventure back in the early 70’s, at that time known as Toyota Team Europe. But everyone knows that they will have to start from scrap. They can’t really rely on their previous expierences with the WRC leading up until ’99. The format may still have remained pretty much the same since 1999, but the cars, the technology, the whole feel to the WRC is different from what it was 18 years ago.

TMG had their first footsteps back into rallying with the GT86 R3 car last year, which will make its competitive debut this year. Worth to mention that their current state with their WEC program from 2016 onwards also remains to be unknown. I’m mentioning this because it could well affect Toyota’s WRC program in some way, as it costs about 20m € to enter a LMP1 car for a full WEC campaign and remember that they have a two-car entry there. Toyota’s financial contribution to the TMG led P1 program is limited, after their “more money= more pace” plan in F1 didn’t come to fruition (didn’t score a single win in seven years). So Toyota, after pulling out of Bernie Ecclestone racing in 2009, are careful with spending their on money in racing in general, because we all know, it’s not a bargain to compete. I don’t really know how much money Toyota is going to give TMG for not just the development of the car, but also on how many entries they will eventually have for 2017. I reckon a two car entry would be sensible, driver rotations could well happen, but we haven’t heard anything about any upcoming Toyota drivers. I could go on speculating and speculating and suddenly going to say that Evgeny Novikow is going to be their No.1 driver with Conrad Rauterbach being his teammate (don’t get me wrong, Rauterbach was actually quite good).

Now moving on to whether this isn’t a wake up call for the WRC. If there was a time to stop the mismanagement that is going on currently, then 2017 is the right time to do it. Because if they are going to continue like this, I’m not sure if we can stay with the happy prospect of five car makers involved in WRC racing for any longer. The last time we saw this was in 2005. Three of the five manfacturers which competed in ’05, Peugeot and Mitsubishi, but also including Subaru (who pulled out at the end of ’08) are the desired ones from fans and media to bounce back, but they’re probably never going to comeback if we don’t see some major changes in the WRC. The calender is complete bollocks, with ten rallies in Europe, it’s not really world championship worthy. Too many rallies are (or were) too similar (Poland/Finland, Portugal/Italy). It’s great to hear that the Corsica Rally is back this year, because the Alsace event (which by now got cancelled for this year and probably forever) was more like a Sebastian Loeb-and-some-other-folks-rally.

Also with a horrid TV package, and cars not really appealing enough for racing fans outside of the WRC or even mainstream people, the FIA needs to look onto this issue. Remember the days when WRC nearly gave F1 a run for their money (from a marketing perspective)? Yeah, they’re long gone.

But I still love WRC for what it is today, although having to deal with the aforementioned issues. I don’t want to be that casual rally fan saying: “We need to go back to Group B, 500 + Horsepower, these cars were for men blah blah blah”. Group B was great and will always be, although I still think that the banning of Group B wasn’t because the cars were too dangerous to drive. What I’m trying to say is: we need to move on, as with every other type of racing, it was a different time back then and I don’t think making the future by repainting the past is a solution. I thought the idea of Group S was great, 300 bhp, but still Group B-kinda-looks, better safety measures and cost control.
Sadly the FIA was too afraid that a another disaster would happen again and tossed the idea into their nearest dustbin and went the more sensitive route of the Group A instead (World rally cars are more or less what Group S was supposed to be now).

The future decisions the FIA and promoter Red Bull Media House are making with the WRC couldn’t just affect Toyota’s views of their WRC program, the other four manufacturers will closely follow that process, too. If they start questioning their WRC effort and ask themselves: “What are we still doing here?”, then you know it’s the beginning of the end.

Anyway, I just hope they do well, I have faith in TMG back in Cologne and Toyota Japan… and the WRC.

Bring on 2017!