Elfyn Evans led Rally Japan by 1m49.9s overnight after streaming-wet conditions in Friday’s opening leg caught out several of his FIA World Rally Championship rivals.

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 WRC’s 2023 season finale. Survival was the aim of the game and, while several of his rivals faltered, Toyota GR Yaris Rally 1 driver Evans (above) 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 a 26s lead over Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, his main rival for the runner-up spot in this year’s drivers’ championship.

Neuville, winner of last year’s Rally Japan, responded in the afternoon’s repeated stages by cutting 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 i20 N Rally1 into a tree on the first corner of the following stage, Inabu Dam 2.

The Belgian wasn’t the only driver to be caught out by the conditions and joined Hyundai teammate Dani Sordo as well as M-Sport Ford Puma Rally 1driver Adrien Fourmaux on the retirements list after both drivers left the road at the same location in the morning’s treacherous opening stage.

With Neuville out, Evans had breathing space at the top of the leader board, and with two of his Hyundai rivals sidelined, he heads 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 exit, Sebastien Ogier became Evans’ nearest challenger — although the eight-time world champion conceded that catching up with his Toyota teammate would be a tall order.

Ogier, who’s running a part-time WRC program in 2023, slid sideways into a barrier on the afternoon’s opening stage, but was able to continue with minimal time loss. The impact did, however, damage the chassis of his GR Yaris. With the required repairs causing him to check out late from the final service of the day, he collected a one-minute time penalty.

“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 Rovanpera was hindered by lingering leaves, so he took a cautious approach in his GR Yaris as he carved a cleaner line for those behind. The 23-year-old Finn’s consistency paid off as he finished the day error free in third overall, just 16.7s back from teammate 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 Yaris 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 liaison section. 

That incident, combined with the time penalties for lateness after his roadside fix, cost Katsuta more than four minutes. He languished in ninth overall as a result, although the three fastest stage times he posted throughout the day were clear signs of what could have been.

Just ahead of Katsuta, Ott Tanak was eighth on a day which saw his Puma Rally1 plagued by gremlins. Making his last start for M-Sport Ford before returning to Hyundai for 2024, the Estonian dropped almost three minutes when the car’s windows misted up on the day’s second stage and he leaked more time in the afternoon with a performance-sapping electrical issue.

Such was the rate of attrition among the Rally1 entries that several crews from the WRC2 field, the second tier of international rallying, got their chance to shine on the soaking Japanese aspahalt. 

Newly-crowned WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen, driving a Rally2-spec Skoda Fabia RS, sat fourth overall at the overnight halt. Behind him was M-Sport Ford’s Gregoire Munster, also competing in Rally2 machinery again after getting behind the wheel of a Rally1 Puma for the previous two WRC rounds.

Mikkelsen and co-driver Torstein Eriksen arrived in Japan under no pressure to perform, having sealed the coveted WRC2 crown two weeks ago at Central European Rally. Nevertheless, the duo led the c ategory by 29.4s at the end of the leg and — even more impressive — sat just 53.6s behind the overall WRC champ, third-placed Rovanpera.

“It’s been a very good day,” said Mikkelsen. “Before lunch we had a good push and after that I tried to drive clever in the afternoon. Tricky conditions, but so far, so good.”

Munster, who isn’t registered for WRC2 points in Jap an, finished the day a mere 4.8s behind Mikkelsen, with Nikolay Gryazin a further 24.6s further back and holding sixth overall in his Skoda.

Making it four Rally2-spec cars in the top 10, former Formula 1 race winner Heikki Kovalainen proved he’s no slouch behind the wheel of a rally car, bringing his ex-Esapekka Lappi Fabia R5 10th overall at the overnight halt. 

Saturday is shorter, but certainly no less challenging. Eight stages lie in store with a combined total of 52.62 miles.  

WRC Rally Japan, positions after Leg One, SS8
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 1h25m22.7s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m49.9s
3 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m06.6s
4 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2 leader) +3m00.2s
5 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Ford Fiesta Mk II – WRC2, non-points) +3m05.0s
6 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Sloda Fabia RS – WRC2) +3m29.6s
7 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +3m44.3s 
8 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Puma Rally1) +4m42.8s
9 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnson (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +5m07.9s
10 Heikki Kovalainen/Sae Kitagawa (Skoda Fabia – WRC2) +5m56.0s

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