In July 2015, Toyota decided to re-enter the World Rally Championship after a long hiatus. They had just over 500 days to assemble a team, develop a competitive car, and organise all of the logistics that comes with contesting an FIA world championship series.
Tommi Mäkinen, four times WRC champion, was appointed team principal, and the Finnish connection was established. The Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team’s HQ was initially opened in Puuppola, Finland, but in the summer of 2018 all the service facilities were moved to Peetri, a small town just outside Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city. Only the development crew stayed in rural Finland.
There were two main reasons the move to Peetri was made: logistics and cost. With 0% corporate income tax on reinvested or retained profits, Estonia’s tax system offers a considerable advantage over that of Finland.
However, team principals stressed the logistical reason for the move. For a WRC team, it’s much easier to operate across Europe and the world from Estonia than it is from Scandinavia.
Recently, I was allowed to visit the Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT facility after the competition cars returned from the Rally Guanajuato Mexico round of the WRC. These cars were completely dismantled, their engines having been sent to Toyota Motorsport GMBH in Cologne, Germany – a unique development facility where among other things Toyota develops its Le Mans prototypes.
Fun fact: Cars are transported around the world on normal commercial airlines in an ordinary baggage container. The Toyota Yaris WRC just fits inside one of these containers with its rear wing removed and low-profile tires fitted. So the next time you’re going on a holiday, there might just be a WRC car checked in as baggage on your flight.
On the day of my visit, cars were already put back together and the final setup changes before Rally Tour de Corse were being made. Not too many people ever get to see this side of the operation, and my arrival was even moved by one day to allow the engineers to complete some tests that no outside eyes are permitted to see.
Estonia’s facility has a quality control department, a warehouse, a few office employees, a logistics department, plus engineers and mechanics who are responsible for the rebuild and maintenance of a particular car. In total, there are three teams of mechanics: rally mechanics that only work at events, workshop mechanics who rebuild cars in between, and mechanics that participate in testing.
The general rule in this workshop was to ask before taking a picture: everybody was friendly, but very few things were allowed to be photographed, and even then only at certain angles. These vehicles are so advanced with a technological competitive edge – not to mention that the championship fight this year is arguably the most intense in a decade – so no team wants to divulge any of their secrets.
The first room I was shown had three empty Yaris shells. At the time, I thought these would the only cars I’d get to see, but later I found out there were were actually 13 Yaris WRC cars, all test vehicles. None of them are sold; only once a car was rented to Marcus Grönholm, who did Rally Sweden 2019 as a belated 50th birthday present to himself.
“Photos of the shell is fine, but only from these angles. No close shots are allowed, and please don’t show how the wiring inside is done,” my guide told me.
The next room had a rolling chassis being restored, but no shots of that were permitted. The next two rooms were top secret as well; one had all the body panels, and the other some heavy machinery to test electrics and hardware. Occasionally I was allowed to take a picture of a body panel or a brake disc – the parts that are totally visible to anyone at a WRC event.
To my surprise, I was given complete freedom to document how the engineers test and measure a suspension wishbone for any damage.
Another fun fact: Even the sponsor stickers that go on the car are weighted.
At this point, I thought that I wasn’t going to be able to capture any good visual content, but the last room put a smile back on my face. Here I saw all three current Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT rally cars – the offices of Ott Tänak, Jari-Matti Latvala and Kris Meeke. Each car was receiving its final checks and tuning from a team of mechanics.
Shooting the engine bays was strictly forbidden, as was the case with some aspects of the interiors. When I was taking harmless snaps of the dash, checks were made whether I could show certain things or not.
The latest generation of WRC cars may be based on road-going models, but very few parts are comparable; these are highly-tuned machines built to perform in the toughest conditions. The Yaris WRC’s 1,600cc turbocharged engine produces 380hp and 425Nm, and all that in a car with insanely intelligent differentials, four-wheel drive, and a total weight of just 1,190kg (2,623lb).
I left the premises happy, and apparently I’m now one of only a few people to know the location of the screw gun that every crew keeps in their car.Team
The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru Impreza WRX STI are the cars that will likely come to mind when you think of Japanese manufacturers in the World Rally Championship, but it was actually Toyota who paved the way by being the first Japanese team to win the WRC manufacturers’ title in 1993.
From 1999 to 2016 Toyota was absent from WRC, but with the new World Rally Car specifications introduced in 2017 it was an ideal time for the Japanese manufacturer to jump right back in.
My fellow countryman, Estonia’s Ott Tänak came very close to delivering a historical fifth driver’s title in 2018, but technical difficulties in Great Britain and Spain left him standing on the third step of the podium. Still, great performances throughout the year from the entire team secured the 2018 manufacturers’ title for Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team.
For 2019, Tommi Makinen went va banque by gathering a team of drivers who are able to win every round of the championship – and for good reason. This year competition is the hardest in modern WRC history, with the likes of Sébastien Ogier, Elfyn Evans, Esapekka Lappi, Jari-Matti Latvala, Sébastien Loeb, Kris Meeke, Andreas Mikkelsen, Thierry Neuville, Dani Sordo and Ott Tänak all being previous winners in the WRC.
The fact that the Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team has also started to develop an R5-spec car is a good sign that they’re committed to the WRC for quite a while. It’s good news for general Toyota buyers as well: racing knowledge translates to production models, making them more fun to drive and even more reliable.