Japanese trio continue snow education on adopted home roads

The second generation of TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRC Challenge Program drivers concluded their first winter of snow rallying on adopted home territory at the Jyväskylän Talviralli (Jyväskylä Winter Rally) last weekend, with Yuki Yamamoto achieving his first podium result in the Finnish Rally Championship.

This was the third and final snow event of the winter for the trio of young Japanese drivers, following their participation in January’s Arctic Rally in Rovaniemi and their FIA World Rally Championship debuts at Rally Sweden last month. Returning to the Finnish Rally Championship calendar for this year, the event was held on stages around the city of Jyväskylä, home to TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRT and where the three drivers have been based since they moved to Finland last year. The itinerary featured a total of 88.92 competitive kilometres across seven different stages, each run only once – including many roads that have been used in the WRC’s Rally Finland.

Yamamoto, co-driven by Miika Teiskonen, showed strong and consistent pace from the very first stage, which took place on Friday night at the Killeri trotting track on the edge of Jyväskylä. Moving into the forests on Saturday, he set the fastest time in the SM3 class in SS5 on his way to securing third position in the category: a well-deserved reward after showing strong performance on snow over recent weeks.

Nao Otake was running close behind Yamamoto after some similarly consistent stage times, and was involved in a tight battle for fourth position in class at the end of the rally. Unfortunately, in difficult conditions in darkness with fresh snow falling, Otake and co-driver Marko Salminen got stuck in a snowbank in the final stage and were unable to finish, but can look back positively on the winter after finishing second on the Arctic Rally and winning their class on Rally Sweden.

Hikaru Kogure hoped to repeat the strong progress he demonstrated on the previous two events along with co-driver Topi Luhtinen. He too was able to set some consistent times and complete every stage to gain more valuable experience, finishing in 10th position.

Hikaru Kogure:
“I’m happy to get some more mileage on snow in this rally but I’m disappointed that I couldn’t drive with better speed. The stages had quite a different character compared to the previous two events, with lots of crests and narrow bumpy roads: proper Finnish roads. The feeling wasn’t bad at all with my pacenotes or my driving, but the pace wasn’t there that I had expected. Sometimes I took too much speed over the crests or into tight corners and I overshot some junctions. I’ve learned a lot about snow conditions from these three rallies and I could improve a lot from the first one, so that’s been good. Now we will drive on asphalt for the next event: I’m looking forward to it and I will try to prepare well.”

Nao Otake:“For me the driving in this rally was going quite OK – at least I tried to push quite hard – but it was a bit of a shame to go off in the last stage. It was snowing hard and it was difficult to see, and the corner came a bit quicker than I was expecting. I went in a bit too fast and we went wide into the snowbank. We have gained so much experience doing these rallies on snow, and on this event also I found some good ideas of how to be faster and I was able to understand where we were losing seconds. So it’s been a good rally overall with good learning.”

Yuki Yamamoto:“I had a clean run and I kept a good pace all the time and finally finished a rally, so that was nice. The stages in this area around Jyväskylä are really demanding and challenging; really high-speed and narrow with so many crests, so much more difficult than on Arctic Rally or Rally Sweden. The last stage was quite messy: it was snowing like crazy and with so much loose snow, there was no clean line at all. It was difficult to adjust and I didn’t know how slow I could take it, so this was some new learning for me. From these three rallies we got really good kilometres and results-wise it was getting better all the time, and now we are on the podium. I feel great and I’m sure I’ve progressed a lot.”

Mikko Hirvonen (TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRC Challenge Program chief instructor):“We tried to push the guys a little bit for this rally. We knew that if they can reach their maximum and be consistent, they would be able to do well. We’re really happy for Yuki because he’s been able to show some very good pace on snow this year and now he had a clean rally and he was able to be fast right from the beginning. Third is a really good result and I’m sure it’s a relief for him. Nao was driving well too; he was pretty close with Yuki at the beginning. It was an unfortunate end to the rally for him but we could see his pace and are quite happy with how he performed. Hikaru has found it difficult in snowy conditions but has been improving all the time. He wasn’t feeling confident enough to really push, so he did a smart drive to finish the rally and get the experience. All three didn’t really have experience of driving on snow before but have shown good pace against the Finnish drivers, who are veery familiar with these conditions. It’s actually been pretty impressive how much they’ve improved and the kind of level they’ve been able to get to in a short space of time.”

Results (SM3 class):

  1. Nico Valkonen/Kari Kallio (Ford Fiesta Rally4)53m01.9s
  2. Tuomas Välilä/Päivi Välilä (Ford Fiesta Rally4)+1.2s
  3. Yuki Yamamoto/Miika Teiskonen (Renault Clio Rally4)+28.7s
  4. Justus Räikkönen/Mikael Korhonen (Peugeot 208 Rally4)+43.6s
  5. Patrick Enok/Rauno Rohtmets (Peugeot 208 Rally4)+1m11.4s
  6. Matteo Fontana/Alessandro Arnaboldi (Peugeot 208 Rally4)+1m37.7s
  7. Hikaru Kogure/Topi Luhtinen (Renault Clio Rally4)+2m22.5s

Retired Nao Otake/Marko Salminen (Renault Clio Rally4)

What’s next?

The drivers will switch their focus to asphalt for the Rally di Alba in Italy on April 14-15. The event takes place in the hills of the Piedmont region in the northwest of the country and, as well as being a round of the Italian Rally Championship, often attracts crews from across Europe.