Elfyn Evans (above) is poised to deliver Toyota Gazoo Racing its first home WRC after maintaining a commanding lead over teammate Sebastien Ogier on Rally Japan’s penultimate leg.
The early lead built by Evans when he dominated Friday’s soaking-wet leg of the FIA World Rally Championship’s all-asphalt finale meant he could avoid taking unnecessary risks on the drier, but still treacherously slippery, roads faced on Saturday. It even began to snow at one point late in the day but, to the competitors’ relief, the shower was short lived.
Evans’ vigilant approach in his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 allowed Ogier to slash his lead by almost 40 seconds over the course of the day, but the Welshman still has 1m15.0s in hand over the eight-time WRC champ heading into Sunday’s six-stage final leg.
Taking a victory here would be sweet revenge for the 34-year-old Evans after wheel damage in 2022 gifted Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville the victory. Neuville crashed on Friday, restarted the Saturday leg in his repaired i20 N Rally1, but is no longer in contention.
“It’s been pretty OK,” said Evans. “Getting caught in some rain in the penultimate stage was not so nice, and we were maybe too careful in some places, but it was always going to be a bit tricky to judge our speed today with such a big gap.”
Newly-crowned WRC champ Kalle Rovanpera completed a GR Yaris-dominated overnight top three, trailing Ogier by 25.6s at the end of Saturday’s leg. The 23-year-old Finn should have nothing to worry about on Sunday as his closest challenger, Esapekka Lappi, languishes more than one minute behind him in his Hyundai.
Having been hindered by technical gremlins on Friday, Ott Tanak clawed himself and his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 up the leaderboard to reach the overnight halt in fifth overall. But the Estonian, driving his last rally for M-Sport before returning to Hyundai, will be keeping a keen eye on his rear-view mirrors, with Takamoto Katsuta only 14.9s behind.
Ott Tanak has clawed his way to fifth in his final rally in an M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1. M Sport photo
Local hero Katsuta lost a large chunk of time when he crashed his GR Yaris early in the rally, but the Japanese ace has been on an upward trajectory ever since, racking up seven fastest stage times so far.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, newly-crowned champ Andreas Mikkelsen expanded his class lead, but fell down the rally’s overall leaderboard from fourth to seventh as drier conditions allowed the more powerful Rally1 cars to assert themselves.
The Skoda Fabia RS driver is 8.3s ahead of Gregoire Munster’s M-Sport Ford Fiesta MkII. But with Munster not registered for WRC2 points in Japan, Mikkelsen’s nearest competitor for the official class win is fellow Skoda driver Nikolay Gryazin, who sits 43.3s behind.
Newly-crowned WRC2 champ Andreas Mikkelsen extended his class lead on the Japanese asphalt. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool
Mikkelsen secured the overall WRC2 title at the Central European Rally two weeks ago, and while a victory at this final round of the season would be an additional feather in the Norwegian driver’s cap, he faces no pressure to perform.
“We’ve put on a new setup for tomorrow,” revealed Mikkelsen, “so let’s see how it works and what the day will bring — probably a new big challenge!”
Sunday’s final leg consists of six special stages – a loop of three tests repeated twice — and culminates with the second run through the 4.67-mile Asahi Kougen test as the rally-closing, bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage.
WRC Rally Japan, positions after Leg Two, SS16
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 2h28m20.8s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m15.0s
3 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m40.6s
4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +3m09.3s
5 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Puma Rally1) +3m35.3s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnson (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +3m50.3s
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2 leader) +5m11.3s
8 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Ford Fiesta Mk II – WRC2, non-points) +5m19.6s
9 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Sloda Fabia RS – WRC2) +5m54.6s
10 Kajetan Kajetanowicz/Maciej Szczepaniak (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +12m51.6s
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