07 Feb 08
On his personal website, Toshi Arai describes himself as an affable but intense character. He’s far too modest to further that self-portrait with the statistics which embody the most successful Group N driver in the modern history of the World Rally Championship; two Production Car World Rally Championship titles in the last three years are the stand out figures - and the numbers which mark the Japanese out as the man to watch this time around.
The one constant in Arai’s exceptionally successful career is Subaru. Since the 41-year-old first drove in the world championship in 1997, he has never driven anything other than an Impreza - he even tackled a programme of events for the Subaru World Rally Team in 2001 and 2002. But it’s the Group N Impreza WRX which he’s made his own.
Since the inception of the modern Production Car World Rally Championship in 2002, Arai has won 12 of the 46 rounds; he’s the only competitor ever to have won a round each season since ’02 and, of course, he’s the only man to have won the title twice. In short, it’s going to take an express train travelling at the speed of a Shinkansen to derail him in 2008.
We could, however, have said exactly the same in 2006, when Nasser Al-Attiyah beat him to the title. Al-Attiyah’s title defence last season was a catalogue of disasters. For somebody who simply never seemed to put the car off the road, the Qatari went through a period of barely being able to keep it on the road in both the Production and the Middle East series. His start to this year couldn’t have been better. He gave the new-shape Subaru Impreza WRX a debut win on the recent Qatar International Rally and looks on course to carry the fight to Toshi this year.