Five Motorsport Ireland competition licence holders are on the entry list for this weekend’s Forum8 Rally Japan, the final round of the World Rally Championship.
Having been cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rally Japan finally returns to the WRC calendar this season following an 11-year hiatus from the series.
For all five Irish competitors, it will be their first trip to the Asian event.
Another first at this year’s Rally Japan will be the surface, with the event shifting to smooth tarmac roads from the gravel tracks of previous editions.
The rally headquarters has also found a new home for 2022, near Toyota’s headquarters and close to Nagoya, the nation’s fourth-largest city.
The fresh itinerary presents a daunting and uncertain challenge for the crews, who will have to get up to speed quickly to put themselves in contention for victory.
One co-driver facing the biggest challenge of his career so far is Cavan’s, James Fulton.
He has been recruited by Waterford’s Craig Breen to take over from the retiring Paul Nagle. This will be Fulton’s first-ever start in the Rally 1 class.
“A new challenge and one I am looking forward to getting stuck into and making the most of the opportunity,” said Fulton who was crowned WRC 2 Junior champion at last month’s Rally Spain alongside Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy Driver Josh McErlean.
“I am staying focused on the job I have to do this week and trying not to get caught up in the whole thing.”
Breen and Fulton will start sixth on the road in their M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1.
Kerry’s Nagle will travel out to the event to complete the handover process and help Fulton through what Breen describes as a baptism of fire.
“Looking to the rally that is ahead of us in Japan, that will definitely be a baptism of fire. But James is putting the work in and has the dedication and is committed and Paul has been keeping him on his toes. It will be strange for the first time in Japan. But that’s the future,” said Breen.
One car ahead of the Waterford/Cavan Puma sits local hero Takamoto Katsuta and his County Tyrone co-driver Aaron Johnston.
The Toyota Gazoo Racing stars have enjoyed a solid season with nine top-six results, including third overall on Safari Rally Kenya.
By their own admission, building confidence on tarmac surfaces has been a big part of the year and they are now looking forward to competing on Takamoto’s home event – his first attempt at a home round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
“Here we are it’s time for the big one Rally Japan, the season finale,” said Johnston.
“It is going to be extra special for me and one that I’ve really really been looking forward to all season, obviously sitting with Taka who is the young Japanese driver at the moment.
“Not only that but we’re in the heart of Toyota here in Toyota City so I think for everyone in the team it’s going to be a special event. Hopes are high and we cannot wait for the weekend. But it’s going to be a big challenge, one we are really looking forward to and we will do our best like always.”
One of the most interesting and ambitious entries on the Rally Japan entry list comes from the privateer outfit of Eamonn Boland and MJ Morrisey.
The Wexford/Waterford pairing has contested four rounds of the World Rally Championship so far this year.
All the rallies they have contested, Monte Carlo, Sweden, Belgium and Spain have been relatively local European events but this trip to the Far East is, by far, one of the biggest challenges ever taken on by an Irish privateer team.
They faced a massive logistical challenge. This weekend they will be reunited with the Hertz liveried Ford Fiesta RC2 they last drove in Belgium.
They had to hire a similar car for last month’s Rally Spain as their own car was already in transit to Japan.
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