Elfyn Evans comfortably leads Rally Japan with just the superspecial remaining on Friday, as closest rival Thierry Neuville crashed out on the sixth stage.
Friday morning’s loop was dramatic with monsoon-like conditions causing the cancelation of SS4, and the end of Dani Sordo and Adrien Fourmaux’s days as the duo crashed at the exact same place of the exact same stage.
But Welshman Evans rose above the chaos to win both stages and build a 26.0-second lead over his nearest challenger Neuville.
Evans however struggled to commit on the second pass of Isegami’s Tunnel with the stage looking so different to the morning, which was badly timed as his rival Neuville absolutely came alive to carve a massive 15.5s out of the Welshman’s advantage.
That left the Toyota driver in front by just 10.5s heading onto SS6 and seemingly under pressure, but instead it was Neuville who buckled as the Hyundai driver ran wide into a tree on the very first corner of the stage.
Evans moved into a clear lead as a result, holding a 50.9s advantage over team-mate Sébastien Ogier with world champion Kalle Rovanperä completing a Toyota 1-2-3.
Ogier flirted with disaster on SS6 though as he was kicked off the racing line as he got hooked into a ditch, which sent him wide and briefly off the road as he made contact with an Armco barrier. That caused damage to Ogier’s door and cost him over 10s, but otherwise he emerged unscathed.
Rovanperä is safely third, but already over a minute behind Ogier and two minutes behind Evans.
WRC2 leader Andreas Mikkelsen starred on his way to fourth overall in the morning, but with conditions improving (and a healthy advantage in class), the Norwegian slipped back.
The Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 remains in fourth place though thanks to Neuville’s exit, 48.0s ahead of the similar car of Nikolay Gryazin.
Esapekka Lappi found his speed “embarrassing”, left to regret his decision to take two soft tires as part of his package for the afternoon. He’s sixth overall, just 0.6s ahead of M-Sport Rally2 driver Grégoire Munster, and the sole surviving Hyundai.
Ott Tänak is having a miserable run on his final rally for M-Sport, complaining that “the car is s***ting itself” with a mysterious problem where he said he had “no anti-lag and throttle is in road mode”.
He’s eighth, one spot up on Takamoto Katsuta who had a difficult morning where he lost five minutes with radiator damage following an incident on SS2.
And as if to prove what might have been, the home hero was fastest on all three of the afternoon’s stages.
“That’s all I can do now,” he smiled.
Former Formula 1 driver Heikki Kovalainen completes the top 10.