Ri­vals fear ja­panese car’s pace in 2019 con­test

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - By David Evans

Meeke: New Yaris man

The man­u­fac­turer ti­tlewin­ning team will field a largely un­changed car for this month’s sea­sonopener in Monte Carlo, but from then on the Yaris will evolve quickly.

Toy­ota dom­i­nated the sec­ond half of last sea­son, win­ning four of the last six rounds. World Rally Cham­pi­onship teams fear Toy­ota could dom­i­nate this year’s se­ries – with the Ja­panese man­u­fac­turer al­ready work­ing on a se­ries of up­grades for its Yaris WRC.

Toy­ota starts this year chas­ing back-to-back man­u­fac­turer World Rally Cham­pi­onship ti­tles for the first time in 25 years – and its ri­vals fear the Ja­panese gi­ant’s dom­i­na­tion of this year’s se­ries.

Drivers and team prin­ci­pals from all cor­ners of the ser­vice park point to Toy­ota as the team to beat this sea­son, with world cham­pion Se­bastien Ogier sum­ming up ev­ery­body’s feel­ings.

“They are so strong,” said Ogier. “When you see what they could do last year, es­pe­cially in the sec­ond half of the year – we all have a lot of work to do to stay with them.”

Asked if Toy­ota were favourites go­ing into 2019, Ogier was un­equiv­o­cal, say­ing: “For the teams’ [ti­tle], I would say for sure.”

Team prin­ci­pal Tommi Maki­nen did lit­tle to al­lay those fears, telling MN there was more to come from his team in the com­ing year. Asked what he thought about the la­bel of pre-sea­son favourite, Maki­nen said: “I’m not so sure about that, yet. Look at last year and, yes, we had so many fastest stage times – but we did not have as many good re­sults as we should have. We need more good re­sults from the ral­lies.

“We have some work com­ing with the car, we have some [ho­molo­ga­tion] jok­ers which we will be us­ing, but maybe we don’t need to do too much with the car [in terms of per­for­mance]. I would say the con­sis­tency is the im­por­tant thing for us to find.”

Driver line-up

There can be ab­so­lutely no deny­ing the ex­cite­ment that ac­com­pa­nies a driver line-up in­clud­ing the trio of world rally win­ners that is Ott Tanak, Jari-matti Lat­vala and Kris Meeke. Each of those three drivers starts the sea­son with the abil­ity, pace and knowl­edge to win ev­ery round of the cham­pi­onship. Be­tween them, they have 378 WRC starts and 29 wins. The bulk of those sta­tis­tics comes from Lat­vala, but Tanak and Meeke have both been around long enough to know what’s needed. In­ter­est­ingly, the Es­to­nian has one more world rally start (92) and one more win (six) than Meeke.

The only pos­si­ble fly in the oint­ment comes in the man­age­ment of three strong-willed crews, each of whom will only have eyes for one step of the podium.

Trans­mis­sion devel­op­ment

This is where the ho­molo­ga­tion jok­ers are re­ally go­ing to come in to play as the team looks to source more trac­tion and more drive­abil­ity from re­vised front, cen­tre and rear dif­fer­en­tials.

Toy­ota’s chief en­gi­neer Tom Fowler ex­plained: “Chang­ing the spec­i­fi­ca­tion of the trans­mis­sion is a dif­fi­cult and long-winded process. Once you’ve ho­molo­gated the orig­i­nal diffs, you have to go through a joker process to change each one. And, if you get that wrong, you have to go through a fur­ther joker to rec­tify it or go back to the old set-up. We’ve been work­ing on the ramps in the diffs since 2017, but now we’re more on the in­ter­nals in the front and cen­tre. This is aimed at im­prov­ing the drive­abil­ity of the car and help­ing with the way we put the torque down onto the road. This is aimed more at the gravel events, but it’s pos­si­ble we will be able to learn more from this for as­phalt.”

En­gine’s on song

When the Yaris WRC first turned a wheel in com­pe­ti­tion al­most two years ago, ri­vals im­me­di­ately no­ticed the strength of the en­gine – es­pe­cially the power out­put. En­gine devel­op­ment is com­pleted by Toy­ota Motorsport in Cologne and the fruits of Ger­many’s on­go­ing labours were seen in Fin­land last sea­son, when TMG de­liv­ered an up­grade in time for Tanak to win in Jy­vaskyla.

The com­bi­na­tion of en­gine and trans­mis­sion is where Toy­ota will score well this year – with im­prove­ments to both of­fer­ing more feed­back and con­fi­dence to the drivers. The en­gine now gives more torque than ever, al­low­ing the drivers to use the mo­tor to pull them­selves out of trou­ble, es­pe­cially in tricky con­di­tions where grip is com­pro­mised.

Time to toughen up

Plenty was made of Toy­ota’s frag­ile front end last sea­son, with ra­di­a­tor and en­gine dam­age rul­ing the team out of plenty of points. It’s these is­sues Maki­nen is talk­ing about when he speaks of the need for more con­sis­tency.

De­spite those is­sues, when it came to the re­ally tough test – Turkey – then Tanak de­liv­ered an­other win for the Yaris. Fowler ad­mits, how­ever, that rough rally pace needs sig­nif­i­cant at­ten­tion for this sea­son.

“If you ask me,” said Fowler, “which rally I was most dis­ap­pointed with last year in terms of per­for­mance, I’d have to say Turkey. OK, we won the rally, but we weren’t there in terms of pace. Ev­ery­body broke their sus­pen­sion ex­cept us – maybe you could say we were quite for­tu­nate that we didn’t hit any of the big­ger rocks. But look at the first day and we were sixth, with­out the other cars hav­ing prob­lems and some mis­takes we might have stayed there. We’ve seen this as a trend last year, in the rougher sec­tions of stages, when we’re down to bedrock, then they’re tough for us. In Turkey we traded pro­tec­tion for per­for­mance and we knew when we started that rally out out­right speed wasn’t there.

“We’ve worked hard to pick up trac­tion in the slower, looser sec­tions and that was one of the car’s big gains last year – but that’s come to the detri­ment of pro­tec­tion in the sus­pen­sion, which meant we couldn’t carry the speed through the rough places. We need to work on this, we need some time test­ing on rough gravel – trou­ble is, there aren’t many ral­lies where you need that. It means devot­ing time to a set-up and car fairly spe­cific to one rally. Gen­er­ally, ral­lies are get­ting eas­ier on the cars which has meant more of a fo­cus on per­for­mance.” The over­view Chas­sis and sus­pen­sion devel­op­ment is on­go­ing with Toy­ota and the drivers are known to be far hap­pier with the feel and feed­back from the Yaris than they were 12 months ago.

The only vis­i­ble change to the out­side of the car for 2019 is ex­pected to come around the front of the rear wheel arch, which will have a mi­nor aero tweak to help the nat­u­ral air­flow for cool­ing. There’s a feel­ing the car could still shed some weight, but oth­er­wise it’s get­ting close to the op­ti­mum cur­rent spec­i­fi­ca­tion World Rally Car.

Toy­ota Ga­zoo Rac­ing’s other strength is un­doubt­edly the sup­port from the par­ent man­u­fac­turer in Ja­pan. Toy­ota chair­man and CEO Akio Toy­oda is a per­sonal sup­porter of Maki­nen’s work and is reg­u­larly seen on events cheer­ing on the Yaris WRCS. That sup­port is re­flected in the bud­get, with Toy­ota the be­stre­sourced squad in the ser­vice park.

Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­

Au­riol was a Toy­ota win­ner in 1994

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