Rally Japan Sept 9-12
Official Website: rallyjapan.jp/e/
After a two-year absence, Japan returns to the World Rally Championship calendar for the first time since 2008. After several years based in the smaller city of Obihiro, the last running of Rally Japan took place in the metropolis of Sapporo - which hosted the winter Olympics in 1972 as well as the football World Cup in 2002.
So it's not a place that is lacking in sporting heritage. When it comes to motorsport, few countries greet the arrival of the World Rally Championship with such unrestrained enthusiasm. The drivers are treated like rock stars, with some Japanese fans going so far as to camp out in hotel foyers, in the hope of door-stepping their heroes.
Despite the move of rally headquarters, the stages are still similar to how they were when the rally was in Obihiro. Japan is a curiously specific event: no other stages anywhere else in the world are in any way similar. The Japanese roads tend to be narrow with soft surfaces, but despite this they are extremely quick. This is partly down to several long straights, which frequently lead to tight 90-degree corners. Getting the braking right is an essential skill in Japan, especially because the braking areas are often slippery with plenty of loose stones.
The soft gravel, which tends to form deep ruts on the second run through the stages, is one reason why. Another important variable is the weather, which is often wet and cold. Temperatures fluctuate between 10 and 20 degrees Centigrade, frequently reminding people that Hokkaido is a well-known skiing area on the same latitude as Siberia. One of the keys to getting a good result is having a decent set of pace notes. Just like Finland, precision and commitment is the name of the game.
While damp gravel is the defining characteristic of the surfaces, the rally kicks off with an all-asphalt indoor superspecial in Sapporo, which unusually forms the venue for the shakedown stage as well. The superspecial stage is one that the crews visit frequently: in total it is run eight times!
That rather sums Rally Japan: it’s hard for the drivers to get into any sort of rhythm on the event as it consists of several short, sharp stages. There are 26 of them in fact, comprising 303 competitive kilometres. Nonetheless, the total route length is 1220 kilometres, meaning that the crews are in for a few long road sections, early starts and late nights.
Rally Japan is one of the last great adventures left on the calendar, involving flat-out stages, white-gloved taxi drivers, sushi on conveyor belts, and incomprehensible road signs. It’s hard to make sense of it all sometimes. But if it were easy, everybody would do it...