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WRC Rally Japan

WRC Japan: Evans in command after surviving horrendous conditions

Elfyn Evans survived extreme wet conditions that claimed two Rally1 cars to lead Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville on Friday morning at the World Rally Championship season finale in Japan.

Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Toyota Racing

The Toyota driver emerged as the class of the field in arguably the most challenging and dangerous conditions the crews have experienced this season.

Evans leapt from ninth after Thursday’s night’s super special to claim the lead from Neuville by 26.0s after winning the morning’s two stages. Organisers were forced to cancel the final stage of the loop on safety grounds with the adverse weather conditions preventing the medical helicopter from flying.

Toyota’s Sebastien Ogier ended the loop in third (+42.6s) ahead of WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen who produced a stunning drive to beat Rally1 machinery in his Rally2 Skoda.

World champion Kalle Rovnapera headed to service in fifth, 1m36.4s adrift with WRC2 runner Nikolay Gryazin sixth ahead of Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi and M-Sport’s Ott Tanak. Hyundai’s Dani Sordo and M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux retired after crashes on stage two.

The forecasted heavy rain coupled with leaves and pine needles on the road surface created ice like conditions which meant the drivers had to proceed with caution.

There was drama from the outset on stage two (Isegami’s Tunnel, 23.67km) as Sordo locked up and swiped the trees forcing the Spaniard to retire on the same stage where his i20N went up in flames 12 months ago. Both driver and co-driver Candido Carrera were unharmed in the incident.

Moments before Toyota’s Katsuta went off the road at the same location after initially setting the fastest time on the first splits. The local favourite was able to reach the stage end but lost more than two minutes due to a damaged radiator which required repairs on the following road section.

M-Sport’s Fourmaux was not so lucky as he also went off the road at the same point triggering organisers to fly the red flags.

Prior to the drama, the pace had been set by Evans, who produced a blistering effort from second on the road, to post a time 32.3s faster than Rovanpera, who faced the dirtiest of the road conditions.

Evans took the stage win by 4.0s from Toyota team-mate Ogier while Neuville was third quickest, 20.8s in arrears.

“It’s horrific. I felt so slow in so many places but then also on the edge in others. It is impossible to judge,” said Evans.

Equally as impressive was Mikkelsen as the Norwegian posted the fourth fastest time, beating Rally1 drivers Rovnapera, Tanak, Lappi and Katsuta.

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai i20 N Rally1

A lack of visibility in stage three (Inabu Dam, 19.38km) added to the challenge as several Rally1 crews battled misted up windscreens.

Despite the challenge to see the road, Evans managed to take a second stage win, completing the test 10.1s faster than Neuville to further extends his lead.

Neuville declared the conditions as “really dangerous” admitting he had never been so scared in a rally car.

Mikkelsen continued his impressive start to the rally by clocking the third best time as he benefitted from a much clearer windscreen in his Skoda. He was only 16.2s slower than Evans.

Fellow WRC2 runner Gregoire Munster was fourth ahead of Kastuta’s father Norihiko Katsuta as Ogier came through in sixth, dropping 38.8s in the process. Rovanpera and Lappi lost more than a minute on the stage, while Tanak ceded almost three minutes after being forced to crouch inside Puma to peer through his windscreen.

“I feel quite seasick to be honest,” joked Tanak. “It started on the previous stage. I don’t know what happened but I guess there is no reason to drive like this.”

Takamoto Katsuta managed to coax his damaged GR Yaris to the finish losing 1m50s.

The crews returned to service after officials cancelled stage four. A repeat of the stages is scheduled for the afternoon before another blast around the Toyota Stadium super special.

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