Rally Japan was supposed to be a home-town victory lap for WRC drivers’ and manufacturers’ champs Toyota Gazoo Racing, but Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville is on target to spoil the fun after charging to a second-leg lead in the FIA World Rally Championship’s season finale.
The Belgian ended Saturday in the top spot, demoting Toyota’s long-time rally leader Elfyn Evans, with a gutsy Saturday drive that sets up a final day thriller. The dueling duo are split by just 4.0s with just 43.4 stage miles remaining in Sunday’s final, potentially rain-soaked leg of the all-asphalt event.
Saturday’s penultimate leg was a game of two halves. Kicking off the day with a three-second lead over his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 chaser, Evans took time from his rival on two of the morning’s three stages — building his advantage to 5.9s by the mid-leg service.
But the Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 driver fell out of his rhythm after the halfway halt and Neuville saw his chance. Hyundai’s asphalt ace pulled back 2.6s through the second run of Nukata Forest, but it was on the next stage, Lake Mikawako, where he really made his mark.
The lead changed hands for the first time since Friday morning when Neuville, despite complaining of differential slip, outpaced Evans by 5.9s. He was in no mood to compromise either, and edged the Welshman through the closing Okazaki City superspecial to end the day with that 4.0s lead.
“The day has been good for us, but it has been a challenging one,” Neuville reflected. “We’ve been struggling a bit with the balance throughout the day, but we got it better for the afternoon. Let’s see what we can do tomorrow.”
Evans was left a little dumbfounded by the sudden change in tempo and claimed that, despite no setup changes being made to his Yaris between the morning and afternoon loops, he’d lost the feeling with the front end of the car.
With a hefty 35.9s gap between Evans and third-placed Ott Tanak heading into Sunday’s final leg, it’s looking likely to be a thrilling two-way fight for glory.
Hyundai’s Tanak moved into the leading trio early on when newly minted WRC champ Kalle Rovanpera picked up a puncture in his Yaris in the morning’s opening stage. Tanak, too, struggled to find a good balance aboard his i20 N Rally1 and the Estonian made constant alterations throughout the day with varied success.
He may have been out of touch with the front-running pair, but Tanak did manage to stretch his buffer over the fourth-placed Toyota of Takamoto Katsuta. The local ace felt unable to push to the maximum and ended 24.6s in arrears in front of his hugely-enthusiastic home fans.
The drive of the day undoubtedly went to eight-time world champion Sebastien Ogier, partnered by new co-driver Vincent Landais. A Friday puncture means the eight-time champ is out of contention for victory, but he climbed from 10th to fifth in his Yaris after collecting three stage wins, leapfrogging M-Sport Ford’s Gus Greensmith in the process.
Greensmith’s Puma Rally1 also hit trouble on Friday and his tricky run continued as an intermittent power-steering fault reared its head in the afternoon. With five stages remaining he sits 3m25.4s back from leader Neuville.
Meanwhile, the delayed Rovanpera languished in 11th overall. Although his early puncture was to blame for the Finn’s initial drop down the order, he tumbled even further back when a brush with a wall in the next stage buckled his only spare wheel.
The Finn bolted the deflated tire back onto the car to prevent further damage and protecting the bent rim in readiness for the 30-mile road section back to service. He picked up 40s in penalties for lateness and, with nothing more to fight for, spent the afternoon testing different setups.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Emil Lindholm is on the cusp of title glory after building a 47.6s lead over Sami Pajari.
Lindholm reeled off four stage wins to start Saturday’s proceedings, putting to bed any suggestions the Finn would take a conservative approach in his Skoda Fabia Evo. He requires just nine points from this event to take the WRC2 title from defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen, and as things stand he’s on course to score at least 25.
Starting the day 8.4s down on overnight leader Pajari’s Skoda in third overall, Lindholm wasted little time in storming to the front — climbing to the top after going 14s quicker than Pajari through the first run of Nukata Forest.
By midday service, Lindholm’s advantage had grown to 11.3s and, when second-placed Teemu Suninen incurred a 50s penalty for a late-check out after experiencing engine troubles in his Hyundai i20 N, he found himself comfortably clear of second-placed Pajari.
Sunday’s finale consists of five stages with no opportunity for service. Asahi Kougen (4.67 miles) opens proceedings and is followed by Ena City (13.42 miles). Nenoue Plateau (7.21 miles) also features, before Ena City and Asahi Kougen are repeated in reverse order from the morning — the latter as the rally-closing, bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage.
WRC Rally Japan, leading positions after Day Two, SS14
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 1h51m28.3s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +4.0s
3 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +39.9s
4 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m4.5s
5 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m46.7s
6 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +3m25.4s
7 Emil Lindholm/Reeta Hamalainen (Skoda Fabia Evo – WRC2 leader) +4m54.1s
8 Sami Pajari/Enni Malkonen (Skoda Fabia Evo – WRC2) +5m41.7s
9 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Hyundai i20 N Rally2 – WRC2) +5m54.3s
10 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Hyundai i20 N Rally2 – WRC2) +5m56.5s
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