Elfyn Evans leads a Toyota 1-2-3 at the end of Friday’s action at Rally Japan, the final round of the 2023 WRC season.
Heavy rain caused chaos during the first full day of action at Rally Japan. Friday’s opening stage, SS2, kickstarted the drama where risk and rewards were very evenly matched.
Takamoto Katsuta was flying on the splits in SS2 but spun and managed to continue with damage. The home hero had to drive in EV mode due to radiator damage to reach the finish. He dropped two-and-a-half minutes in the stage and picked up a 70-second penalty for being late at the next TC, but is still running.
Dani Sordo and Adrien Fourmaux were less fortunate than Katsuta as both went off the road at the same place where Katsuta had his moment. The stage was then red-flagged for the remaining crews.
Visibility problems for Rally1 drivers
Meanwhile, Elfyn Evans was flying in the treacherous conditions. The Welshman won SS2 and SS3 and led the rally by 26s over Neuville after the first three stages. It was surviving for the crews with loads of standing water, aquaplaning and heavy rainfall. The Rally1 crews struggled with visibility as the windscreens fogged up.
“I can’t really see where I’m going”, said Evans at SS3 stage-end. Rovanperä said: “Half of the stage I do without any visibility.”
“Look at my screen [full of fog], just tried to survive”, said Ogier while Neuville said: “The conditions are really, really dangerous. We shouldn’t be driving in them. I have done a lot of rallies, but I’ve never been as scared as this morning.”
The final stage of the loop was cancelled due to the weather conditions.
The Rally2 cars had fewer problems with fogged-up windscreens. 2023 WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen was up to P4 overall with the Skoda Fabia RS Rally2 at Friday mid-day, just 2.1s off the podium: “Rally1 cars are better, but Škoda is better in one area, we can see the road.”
Neuville crashes after 100 meters
Thierry Neuville was the only driver to be able to follow the pace of the Toyotas. The Belgian went 15.5s faster than Evans in SS5, the first stage of the afternoon loop, to close the O/A gap to 10.5s.
In SS6 however, Neuville went off the road, some 100 meters from the start of the stage. He slid wide and hit a tree in a right-hander. The damage was too big to continue.
With Neuville out, the Toyotas took control. At the end of the day, it’s Evans who leads by 1 minute and 49.9 seconds over Ogier. Ogier got a 1-minute penalty at the end of the day for leaving service 6 minutes late. The Frenchman damaged his GR Yaris Rally1 in SS5 after hitting an armco barrier. The repairs took longer than the allowed time which means that Rovanperä is 16.7s behind Ogier instead of more than a minute.
Mikkelsen in P4 with a Rally2 car
Andreas Mikkelsen is fourth, just ahead of fellow Rally2 driver Grégoire Munster. Nikolay Gryazin, also driving a Rally2 car, is in P6, followed by Esapekka Lappi and Ott Tänak. Both Lappi and Tänak struggled with visibility problems. Tänak also faced an electrical problem during the day, resulting in further time loss.
Takamoto Katsuta showed great pace in the afternoon as he won all three stages of the loop but is in P9 overnight after his huge time loss in the morning. Former F1 driver Heikki Kovalainnen completes the top 10 after Friday.
On Saturday there are eight stages scheduled, including three Super Special Stages. These eight stages total 84.68 competitive kilometres. SS9 will be underway at 08:04 local time (00:04 CET, Friday 23:04 GMT).
WRC Rally Japan 2023 – Standings O/A after Friday (SS8)
|#||Drivers||Car||Time / Diff. to 1st|
|1.||Evans / Martin||Toyota GR Yaris Rally1||1:25:22.7|
|2.||Ogier / Landais||Toyota GR Yaris Rally1||+1:49.9|
|3.||Rovanperä / Halttunen||Toyota GR Yaris Rally1||+2:06.6|
|4.||Mikkelsen / Eriksen||Skoda Fabia RS Rally2||+3:00.2|
|5.||Munster / Louka||Ford Fiesta Rally2||+3:05.0|
|6.||Gryazin / Aleksandrov||Skoda Fabia RS Rally2||+3:29.6|
|7.||Lappi / Ferm||Hyundai i20 N Rally1||+3:44.3|
|8.||Tänak / Järveoja||Ford Puma Rally1||+4:42.8|
|9.||Katsuta / Johnston||Toyota GR Yaris Rally1||+5:07.9|
|10.||Kovalainen / Kitagawa||Skoda Fabia R5||+5:56.0|
Photo: Red Bull Content Pool