Elfyn Evans has closed to within just 0.6 seconds of Thierry Neuville’s on the first Sunday stage of Rally Japan on a day where tire choice could well decide the rally.
That’s because rain is expected later in the loop, and morning service was the only opportunity drivers had to select tires.
Toyota have gambled on no rain and took just hard or soft tires, while Hyundai’s two drivers took two wets as part of their six-tire package. The M-Sport drivers split their approach – Craig Breen choosing four wets with Gus Greensmith just two.
On the bone-dry Asahi Kougen stage that kickstarted Sunday, Breen had to fit two wets onto his Puma Rally1 and it severely hampered his pace.
“We’re just looking at the powerstage which should be full wet, so we’re just gearing towards that,” explained Breen.
“It’s making it a bit of a boring nature trip for the moment but hopefully the rain comes sooner or later as it’s not so fun with full wets on the car.”
Sébastien Ogier, who’s a comfortable fifth overall, was asked what made Toyota make its choice, and he simply replied: “The weather forecast.
“I think the meteo guys are sweating a bit at the minute, in both camps,” he added. “We seem to have different information, we’ll see when the rain comes.”
Ott Tänak gave the Hyundai view: “The information we had it seemed the best one, but at the moment we need to save the tire until the later stages.”
Amidst all of this tire intrigue though was a battle to win Rally Japan.
At the start of the day, Neuville held Evans to a four second deficit but Evans won the stage and Neuville was only third quickest, leaving Evans less than a second behind overall.
Asked to describe his run, Evans said: “Bit hairy! In that first part it’s horrible, it’s so fast but pretty patchy damp so hard to judge the grip.”
Neuville added: “With the two softs on the rear we know we’re going to lose a bit of time on the upcoming stages, but once the rain comes with the wet tires we should be much quicker.”
But how confident is he that the rain will come?
“I rely on the information from the team, and from that there will be a lot of rain.”
Kalle Rovanperä was the only driver to not select any soft tires for the final five stages, but confirmed the day is all about testing for 2023.
“We are trying quite many things to get a bit better balance with the car,” he said.
Rovanperä is on the periphery of the world championship points, closing in on Grégoire Munster’s Hyundai i20 N Rally2 which occupies 10th spot.