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WRC - Evans on top of Toyota 1-2-3 after Friday in Japan

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2023 Forum8 Rally Japan - Friday afternoon

2023 Forul8 Rally Japan - Elfyn Evans / Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT, Toyota Yaris Rally1 Hybrid (photo Nikos Katikis / DPPI)

Elfyn Evans led Forum8 Rally Japan by 1min 49.9sec overnight after streaming-wet conditions in Friday’s opening leg caught out several of his FIA World Rally Championship peers.

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 2023 season finale. Survival was the aim of the game and, while several of his rivals faltered, Evans 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 26sec in hand over Thierry Neuville, his main competition for the runner-up spot in this year’s drivers’ championship.

Neuville, winner of the 2022 event, responded in the afternoon by slicing 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 Hyundai i20 N Rally1 into a tree on the first corner of the following test.

The Belgian wasn’t the only driver to be caught out by the conditions and joined team-mate Dani Sordo as well as M-Sport Ford Puma hotshot Adrien Fourmaux on the retirements list after both drivers left the road at the same location in SS2.

Evans was left clear at the top of the standings and, with two of his Hyundai rivals sidelined, headed a GR Yaris podium lockout for Toyota Gazoo Racing.

After Neuville’s demise, Sébastien Ogier became Evans’ nearest challenger – although the eight-time world champion conceded that catching up with his colleague would be a tall order.

Ogier slid sideways into a barrier on SS5 but was able to continue with minimal time loss. The impact did, however, damage the chassis of his Toyota. He collected a one-minute time penalty as the required repairs caused him to check out late from the final service of the day.

Running first on the road, newly crowned WRC champion Kalle Rovanperä was hindered by lingering leaves, and so he took a cautious approach as he carved a cleaner line for those behind. The 23-year-old’s consistency paid off as he finished the day error-free in third overall, just 16.7sec back from 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 car 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 or lateness after his roadside fix, cost Katsuta over four minutes. He languished in ninth as a result, although the three benchmark times he posted throughout the day were clear signs of what could have been.

Such was the rate of attrition that WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen, driving a Toksport-entered Rally2-specification Škoda Fabia RS, placed fourth overall. Behind him was Grégoire Munster, also competing in Rally2 machinery.

WRC2 Challenger series hopeful Nikolay Gryazin brought his Toksport WRT3 Fabia home an impressive sixth overall ahead of Esapekka Lappi, who struggled for confidence in his Hyundai i20 N.

The provisional results can be consulted here.