Trio show their speed on ERC debut at Rally Poland

TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRC Challenge Program drivers Hikaru Kogure, Nao Otake and Yuki Yamamoto showed great speed as they joined the FIA European Rally Championship on the fast gravel roads of Rally Poland on May 19-21: winning 10 stages between them with Kogure taking fourth overall in class.

Rally Poland is based in the north-east of the country around the town of Mikołajki in the Masurian lake district, on roads which featured in the FIA World Rally Championship until 2017. The route consisted of 182.06 competitive kilometres across 16 stages, which were mostly fast and flowing with a soft and sandy surface that was different in character to what the Challenge Program-supported trio had previously experienced on gravel rallies in Finland. Driving Renault Clio Rally4 cars, they were among 25 entries in the ERC4 class, going up against many other up-and-coming young drivers.

The rally began on Friday evening with a side-by-side super special stage next to the service park in Mikołajki. There would be an early setback for Yamamoto with a broken driveshaft preventing he and co-driver Miika Teiskonen from completing the stage, but the issue was fixed so they could restart on Saturday: Yamamoto would go fastest in ERC4 in five of the day’s seven stages and quickest across the whole day.

Otake made a positive start with the fourth-fastest time in SS1 but ran wide and damaged his suspension in Saturday morning’s opening stage, forcing he and co-driver Marko Salminen to sit out the rest of the day.

Kogure meanwhile was able to gradually build his speed, climbing up to fifth position in ERC4 on Saturday afternoon with co-driver Topi Luhtinen before posting the third-quickest time on a repeat of the Mikołajki Arena super special at the end of the day.

All three were among the ERC4 pacesetters on Sunday morning: Yamamoto was quickest in SS9 before Otake beat him by just 0.1 seconds to top SS10, also going on to win SS12. Both would unfortunately see their rallies come to an early end in heavily rutted conditions in the first stage of the afternoon loop: Yamamoto having a soft roll after a tyre deflation, and Otake sustaining damage to the radiator.

Kogure though saved his best for last with a superb finish to the rally. He was fastest in each of the final two stages, including the rally-ending Power Stage, where he gained fourth position overall in ERC4 by 4.1s – having closed a gap of over half a minute since the morning.

Hikaru Kogure:
“I’m very happy about this result. All the stages were really enjoyable but the conditions were even softer more rutted than expected. I was struggling a little bit with how to drive in these places, and so I took a bit of a step back on Saturday. But on Sunday I tried to push a little bit more and then the times came: the instructors encouraged me to push and not to hesitate to go into the ruts, and it went well. It was a good experience and a good weekend. I could have good confidence and feeling about my pacenotes and car setup and everything worked quite well, and hopefully we can get an even better result at Rally Liepāja.”

Nao Otake:“It was a pity that I went wide and hit a tree stump in SS2 and missed the rest of Saturday, because the main thing was to get the mileage from these new stages for us in Poland. But I had good confidence early on and when we restarted on Sunday, I could show some speed, which was good. The stages were very rutted, and in SS13 the ruts were quite deep and it was tough for the car; somewhere I got damage to the radiator and we had to stop. It was nice to get this first experience here in Poland, as the ruts were quite huge in some sections and the surface was quite soft. But I liked the fast stages, and I was quite happy with our pacenotes and enjoyed the driving.”

Yuki Yamamoto:“This rally was really good for us until the final incident on Sunday afternoon. We were quite competitive all the time and fighting for the top times, which was a bit surprising but really nice. I really enjoyed the stages and the driving on this new kind of surface for us. In SS13, I think we got a puncture in the braking where there was a big hole in the road, but I didn’t realise it and tried to turn in for the next corner and it didn’t turn at all. These ruts were something new and big learning for me; we haven’t really seen these kind of ruts in the rallies we’ve done in Finland, but I could adjust almost straight away. We had the mechanical issue and the puncture but in the other stages we could fight with the top guys in ERC4, so that was really good.”

Mikko Hirvonen (TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRC Challenge Program chief instructor):“We’re really happy with the performance of the guys here in Poland. All three drivers were able to show very good speed and set fastest times in the class; we’re pleased for them and for the Program that they are making this progress. It’s a bit unfortunate that Yuki had an issue in the first stage on Friday night. After that, when the car was working, he was showing really impressive speed. Without the issue, he could have been leading the rally, so he did really well. Hikaru improved his speed through the whole weekend. It’s taken him a while to understand how hard he can push in really deep ruts, but it feels like something has clicked and he was able to do really good times and gain a position at the end. We were pushing him a bit for those last two stages, and he didn’t make any mistakes. With Nao it was a pity that he made the mistake early on and missed the whole of Saturday, but he also did really impressive times when he restarted. Now we’re really looking forward to the next rally in Latvia: if they can be consistent with the speed they’ve been doing here, I think they can all challenge for the podium there.”

Results (ERC4 class):

  1. Ola Nore Jr/Rune Eiltertsen (Renault Clio Rally4)1h48m54.6s
  2. Norbert Maior/Francesca Maior (Peugeot 208 Rally4)+1m02.1s
  3. Victor Hansen/Victor Johansson (Peugeot 208 Rally4)+1m26.5s
  4. Hikaru Kogure/Topi Luhtinen (Renault Clio Rally4)+1m42.3s
  5. Roberto Daprà/Luca Guglielmetti (Peugeot 208 Rally4)+1m46.4s
  6. Miko Jalava/Riikka Hokkanen (Ford Fiesta Rally4)+4m57.1s

Retired Yuki Yamamoto/Miika Teiskonen (Renault Clio Rally4)
Retired Nao Otake/Marko Salminen (Renault Clio Rally4)

What’s next?

Kogure, Otake and Yamamoto will also compete in the next round of the ERC season at Rally Liepāja in Latvia on June 17-18. This event takes place on similarly fast gravel stages as those found in Poland, and will give the trio experience on roads that are set to appear in the FIA World Rally Championship for the first time in 2024.