Rally Japan, the final event of this year's FIA World Rally Championship, was once again dominated by Škoda cars in the WRC2 category, taking the top five places. The winner of this category was the already certain World Champion* Andreas Mikkelsen, and Kajetan Kajetanowicz also rocked the performance to become WRC2 Challenger* World Champion.
After the Central European Rally, the Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen crew had already secured the WRC2 championship title and did not have to compete in Japan. However, the duo travelled to Japan with the obvious intention of enjoying the rally. The fact that Andreas drove without stress was clearly visible in his performance.
Even in very difficult conditions, when the weather presented the crews with a combination of torrential rain, intense sunshine and a little snow, Andreas Mikkelsen delivered a sovereign performance. After the first rain-soaked leg, the Norwegian duo was actually fourth in the overall rally standings, keeping pace with the fastest Rally1 cars in the difficult conditions. Overall, Mikkelsen and Eriksen won 14 of the 21 completed special stages, with stage 18, one of the longest of the event at 22.9 kilometres, being particularly successful for them. It was at this stage that the gap to the second fastest WRC2 crew was a full 22.8 seconds. Therefore, Mikkelsen was one second per kilometre faster than his nearest rival at this stage. Not surprisingly, the crew had a lead of more than a minute and a quarter at the finish. Despite this, the WRC2* World Champion still found the event difficult.
"It was a really tough weekend. I think our experience was the key," said Mikkelsen.
However, even behind the Norwegian crew there were fierce battles. The title in the WRC2 Challenger category, where drivers who have not yet won a World Championship title in WRC2 compete against each other, was still undecided. Finnish youngster Sami Pajari and his co-driver Enni Mälkönen dominated the standings here, but they did not intervene in Japan. They had already completed their seven nominated events from which the crews' points gain count towards the overall standings. And so they had to hope that their rivals would not get lucky. However, the two adepts who could have beaten the Pajari/Mälkönen duo, did well, despite the difficult conditions. Nikolay Gryazin and his co-driver Konstantin Aleksandrov finished second with the Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 in the WRC2 category in Japan, while the Kajetan Kajetanowicz/Maciej Szczepaniak crew finished third with the same car. This put them at the top of the WRC2 Challenger category in the final standings, while the Gryazin/Aleksandrov duo moved up to second, leaving the Pajari/Mälkönen crew in third place.
However, other Škoda crews also excelled in Japan. A great performance was given by the home crew Osamu Fukunaga/Misako Saida in the Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo; they finished fourth in the WRC2 category. Fifth place at the finish belonged to the Polish duo of Daniel Chwist and Kamil Heller, again in a Fabia Rally2 evo. The participation of the former Formula 1 driver Heikki Kovalainen was also a highlight of the rally. He and a local co-driver Sae Kitagawa were again behind the wheel of the Škoda and before the duo had to withdraw due to technical problems, they were actually third in the WRC2 standings after the second leg. Kovalainen, by the way, has already taken the Japanese championship lead with the Fabia RS Rally2 for the second time in a row.
Overall, the crews with Škoda cars excelled in this year's World Rally Championship. In the WRC2 category they took four positions in the Top 5 and in the WRC2 Challenger category they even conquered all the positions in the top five. And of course we must not forget the WRC2* team title, which was won by the Toksport WRT team. The teams and drivers will now take a break from competing for a while. But on 25 January, the Rallye Monte-Carlo, the first round of the 2024 FIA World Rally Championship, starts. And of course we'll be there!
* Subject to confirmation of results by the FIA.