Welshman builds commanding lead as treacherous conditions cut a swathe through the WRC field.
Elfyn Evans led FORUM8 Rally Japan by 1min 49.9sec overnight after extreme conditions in Friday’s opening leg caught out several of his FIA World Rally Championship peers.
Torrential rainfall, thick fog and roads covered with damp leaves were just some of the challenges faced by crews on the first full day of action at the 2023 season finale. Survival was the aim of the game and, while several of his rivals faltered, Evans barely put a wheel wrong.
A minor overshoot in the second stage of the day did not prevent the Welshman from reaching the lunchtime service halt with 26 seconds in hand over Thierry Neuville, his main competition for the runner-up spot in this year’s drivers’ championship.
Neuville, winner of the 2022 event, responded in the afternoon by slicing Evans’ advantage by more than half with a blistering run through Isegami’s Tunnel 2. But his comeback was cut short when he crashed his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 into a tree on the first corner of the following test.
The Belgian wasn’t the only driver to be caught out by the conditions and joined team-mate Dani Sordo as well as M-Sport Ford Puma hotshot Adrien Fourmaux on the retirements list after both drivers left the road at the same location in SS2.
Evans was left clear at the top of the standings and, with two of his Hyundai rivals sidelined, headed a GR Yaris podium lockout for Toyota Gazoo Racing.
“It’s been tough, obviously,” confirmed the leader. “This morning, especially, was quite bad – but the afternoon was also not easy to adapt to after going from the zero-grip situation of the morning to having something you can actually drive a bit with.”
After Neuville’s demise, Sébastien Ogier became Evans’ nearest challenger – although the eight-time world champion conceded that catching up with his colleague would be a tall order.
Ogier slid sideways into a barrier on SS5 but was able to continue with minimal time loss. The impact did, however, cause damage to the chassis of his Toyota. He collected a one-minute time penalty as the required repairs caused him to check out late from the final service of the day.
“You are always happy when you survive this kind of day because so many things can happen, and so many things did happen,” Ogier said. “The moment this afternoon cost us a bit of time, but we are happy to still be here because it could have cost us a lot more.”
Running first on the road, newly crowned WRC champion Kalle Rovanperä was hindered by lingering leaves, and so he took a cautious approach as he carved a cleaner line for those behind. The 23-year-old’s consistency paid off as he finished the day error-free in third overall, just 16.7sec back from Ogier.
Toyota could have enjoyed a clean sweep of the top four positions were it not for an error by Takamoto Katsuta on the same corner which caught out Sordo and Fourmaux. His car brushed a tree and sustained radiator damage, but the local star was able to make it back to service after completing the stage in EV mode and carrying out repairs on the road section.
That incident, combined with the time penalties for lateness after his roadside fix, cost Katsuta over four minutes. He languished in ninth as a result, although the three benchmark times he posted throughout the day were clear signs of what could have been.
Such was the rate of attrition that WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen, driving a Rally2-specification Škoda Fabia RS, placed fourth overall. Behind him was Grégoire Munster, also competing in Rally2 machinery.
WRC2 Challenger series hopeful Nikolay Gryazin brought his Fabia home an impressive sixth overall ahead of Esapekka Lappi, who struggled for confidence in his Hyundai i20 N.
Ott Tänak was eighth on a day which saw his Puma plagued by gremlins. The Estonian dropped almost three minutes when his car’s windows misted up on SS3 and he leaked more time in the afternoon with a performance-sapping electrical issue. Heikki Kovalainen, the ex-F1 driver, completed the top 10 whilst also holding third in WRC2.
Saturday is shorter but certainly no less challenging. Eight stages lay in store with a combined total of 84.68km.
Leading positions after Friday:
1. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris 1h 25m 22.7s
2. S Ogier / V Landais FRA Toyota GR Yaris +1m 49.9s
3. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris +2m 6.6s
4. A Mikkelsen / T Eriksen NOR Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 +3m 0.2s
5. G Munster / L Louka LUX Ford Fiesta Rally2 +3m 5.0s
6. N Gryazin / K Aleksandrov Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 +3m 29.6s