Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Elfyn Evans headed Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville by three seconds after Friday’s drama-filled opening leg decimated the field at WRC Rally Japan.
Evans rose above the mayhem of crashes, fires and cancelled and delayed stages to eke out his lead on the tight, twisty asphalt mountain roads around Aichi and give Toyota the overnight lead on its home event.
Japan is back on the FIA World Rally Championship calendar for the first time since 2010 and the all-new asphalt event has already claimed multiple frontline drivers. Dani Sordo’s Hyundai i20 N Rally1 was the first to go — his car reduced to a sorry-looking shell after catching fire in the day’s opening stage, despite the Spaniard’s frantic efforts to extinguish the conflagration.
Sordo’s drama (see more in the morning highlights video below) resulted in a shortened morning loop, with the first pass of Inabu Dam cancelled due to delays. After two stages Evans and Neuville were level pegging as they returned to mid-leg service in Toyota City.
The afternoon’s second run through Shitara Town was also nixed owing to the barrier damage Craig Breen’s M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 caused when he understeered into retirement. But Evans had found his rhythm in his GR Yaris Rally1 and used the remaining two stages to his advantage.
A benchmark time through the Isegami’s Tunnel stage (pictured, top) moved the Welshman 1.1s clear of his Hyundai rival and he repeated that feat in the closing test to consolidate his position. Still, Evans felt there was room for improvement as he seeks to end a 2022 WRC win drought on the season-closing event.
“It’s been tough and quite short,” he reflected. “We’re only four stages down but it’s still not been easy.
“The stages are very demanding and there’s a different feeling in all of them — you’re always wanting something different from the car. Tomorrow is more of the same and it’s going to be changeable,” he added.
Newly crowned WRC champ Kalle Rovanpera briefly led despite being alarmed by smoke entering his car’s cockpit in the opener, but the Finn’s pace began to dwindle as he wrestled with understeer which overheated the front tires. Still, he made it two Toyotas in the top three, trailing Neuville by just 2.1s.
It was a mediocre first day for Ott Tanak on his final rally with Hyundai Motorsport. A differential niggle slowed the Estonian early in the day, but the issue was cured at service, enabling him to end the day 8.8s back from the podium positions in fourth.
Hometown hero Takamoto Katsuta, who was born just a few miles from the rally’s stages in Nagoya, was another man struggling with understeer, although his confidence did start to improve with each stage that passed. Sitting 20.6s back from the lead, a strong result is still within reach for the Toyota development driver.
More than a minute back was Gus Greensmith in the only remaining M-Sport Ford. His day was far from drama free and the Puma Rally1 driver nursed a broken driveshaft throughout the morning. Thursday night leader Sebastien Ogier was also in trouble and languished 2m49.8s off the pace after stopping to change a wheel on his GR Yaris in the day’s opening stage.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Emil Lindholm has one hand firmly on the championship after title rival Kajetan Kajetanowicz crashed out of contention.
Toksport Skoda Fabia Evo driver Lindholm took a significant step towards claiming the 2022 title after Kajetanowicz lost control of his Skoda as he exited a tunnel on the day’s opening test, the car’s left-rear corner clipping a lamp post.
The Pole’s machine suffered significant chassis damage and returned to the Toyota City service park on the back of a truck. He will not restart on Saturday.
With his eyes on the bigger prize at play, early class leader Lindholm backed off the pace significantly. He knows that, with Kajetanowicz out of action, he only requires nine points to claim the title over defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen, who’s already completed his seven allowed rounds and is not competing in Japan.
Lindholm’s caution opened the door for his fellow Finns Sami Pajari and Teemu Suninen, with Pajari’s Skoda ending the day 5.3s ahead of Suninen’s Hyundai i20 N Rally2 and 8.4s clear of Lindholm.
Saturday boasts eight more grueling stages. Nukata Forest (12.78 miles) and Lake Mikawako (9.16 miles) are driven morning and afternoon while a single run through Shinshiro City (4.40 miles) rounds off the morning loop. Double runs of the fan-favorite 0.87-mile Okazaki City superspecial bring the day to a close.
WRC Rally Japan, leading positions after Day One, SS7
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 57m18.8s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +3.0s
3 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +5.1s
4 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +13.9s
5 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +20.6s
6 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +2m0.4s
7 Sami Pajari/Enni Malkonen (Skoda Fabia Evo – WRC2 leader) +2m21.8s
8 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Hyundai i20 N Rally2 – WRC2) +2m27.1s
9 Emil Lindholm/Reeta Hamalainen (Skoda Fabia Evo – WRC2) +2m30.2s
10 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m49.8s
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