FORUM8 Rally Japan is shaping up for a thrilling battle for victory with 5.1 seconds covering the top three crews after an action-packed day in the FIA World Rally Championship.
Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin lead for Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT but Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team pair Thierry Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe are just 3.0s behind. World champions Kalle Rovanperä and Jonne Halttunen are also firmly in contention to win the season finale, the Toyota-driving Finns trailing Neuville and Wydaeghe by 2.1s.
Without a win in the WRC this season and sixth overall after Thursday’s after dark first stage, Evans was third fastest on SS2, but quickest of all on SS4 by 4.3s to shoot from third to first, albeit equal on time with Neuville. The British driver was quickest again on SS5, beating Neuville by 1.1s, before he set the second quickest time on SS6, today’s final stage following the cancellation for SS7 for safety reasons.
Speaking at the finish of SS6, Evans said: “It’s been tough and quite short [today]. 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 changeable. You’ve got some very fast sections and then more of the slow and twisty.”
Second quickest on SS2 and SS5, Neuville admitted to being slightly more cautious on SS6 in his efforts to remain in the hunt for the FORUM8 Rally Japan win. “It’s getting more and more [full of] leaves,” Neuville said after SS6, Inabu Dam 2. “You can’t see the road and you don’t know what the grip is like underneath them. I struggled in there because I don’t want to do a mistake. We are in a good position and we are staying in the fight.”
Rovanperä was fastest on the day-opening Isegami’s Tunnel stage by 1.5s, a result that propelled the Toyota driver into the provisional lead. But he could only manage the sixth fastest time on SS4 and fell from first to third in the overall standings. Despite reporting persistent understeer throughout the leg, the world champion won SS6 and heads to the overnight halt 5.1s off top spot.
Ott Tänak is fourth at the completion of leg one having reported hybrid and transmission issues aboard his Hyundai, while home hero Takamoto Katsuta is a strong fifth in his Toyota.
“The feeling is getting better and better,” Katsuta said. “With the leaves the grip is unknown so I was guessing a little bit. I feel pretty comfortable.”
Sébastien Ogier’s overnight lead was short-lived when a puncture on SS2 delayed the eight-time world champion and new co-driver Vincent Landais by more than two and a half minutes. When asked where he picked up the tyre damage, the Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT responded: “I have no idea to be honest. It was very narrow with not a lot of grip in the road and I didn’t feel anything. Our race is already over.”
There was more drama for Ogier on SS6 when he nudged a roadside barrier with the right-rear corner of his Yaris, picking up what appeared to be cosmetic damage only in the process.
Dani Sordo’s bid for a fourth 2022 podium ended in dramatic fashion when his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 caught fire on SS2. Sordo and co-driver Cándido Carrera were able to vacate the burning car, but the severity of the blaze meant it could not be saved. The resulting delays meant the subsequent Inabu Dam stage was cancelled.
“It was coming really quickly since the beginning of the stage,” said Sordo. “The car was smelling of petrol a lot. After a few minutes it started to burn. It was coming from the rear and we tried to put it out but it was absolutely impossible. I’m sorry for the team. To lose a car like this, it’s a bad day.”
With James Fulton co-driving for the first time, Craig Breen was 0.1s slower than Ogier on Thursday’s superspecial but slipped 11.5s off the lead after SS2 before he hit a barrier and retired his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 on SS4 to compound a frustrating season for the Irishman.
Team-mate Gus Greensmith made it through SS4, albeit more than one minute slower than the fastest time due to a driveshaft failure. Following repairs at midday service, the Briton is sixth overall heading into Saturday’s second leg.
Lindholm handed WRC2 title boost after Kajetanowicz crashes
Emil Lindholm and co-driver Reeta Hämäläinen (Toksport WRT) are on course to win the WRC2 title after his closest rival, Kajetan Kajetanowicz and Maciej Szczepaniak (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo), crashed out on SS2. Lindholm and Hämäläinen are third in the category classification after six stages, with Sami Pajari and Enni Mälkönen (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) in front followed by Teemu Suninen and Mikko Markkula (Hyundai i20 N Rally2) in an all-Finnish 1-2-3.
A spectacular start ceremony held inside the Toyota Stadium on Thursday afternoon signalled the return of the FIA World Rally Championship to Japan for the first time since 2010. Thousands of fans were treated to Japanese drums and a special Samurai performance. Several dignitaries were in attendance, while the many volunteers working in support of the event were celebrated with a special photocall.
The provisional classification can be consulted here: https://www.wrc.com/en/wrcplus/live-timing/