Elfyn Evans led 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
“It’s been tough, obviously,” confirmed the leader. “This morning, especially, was quite bad – but the afternoon was also not easy to adapt to after going from the zero-grip situation of the morning to having something you can actually drive a bit with.”
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.