Elfyn Evans leads Rally Japan overnight but a stage win on Friday’s final test for Kalle Rovanperä has edged him closer to second placed Thierry Neuville.
Friday’s action has been rather truncated with two stages red flagged and a further two canceled in reaction to a fire for Dani Sordo and a crash for Craig Breen in the morning.
But the afternoon was more consistent and Evans, who shared the lead with Neuville at service, managed to break clear and into the lead for himself.
Quicker than Neuville by 1.9 seconds on the final stage of the day, SS6 Inabu Dam, Evans takes a three-second lead into Saturday.
“It’s been tough but quite short somehow, obviously only four stages done, but it’s still not been easy to be honest,” summarized Evans.
“Different feeling in all the stages, everything’s got something a bit different so you’re always wanting something different from the car, but overall it’s OK.”
Neuville is however closer to Rovanperä’s Toyota than Evans’ at the end of Friday, lying just 2.1s ahead of the world champion.
He had looked set to lose position to Rovanperä through the early splits, but pulled some time back towards the end of the test in order to preserve his second place.
Explaining why he had dropped so much early on, Neuville said: “It’s getting more and more leaves so you don’t see the road and you don’t know what is the grip under the leaves.
“I didn’t want to risk everything because we are in a good position, we are in the fight.”
Rovanperä had looked like he was under threat from Ott Tänak on his Hyundai swansong, but that final stage win of the day has allowed him to nibble a bit back.
Rovanperä is 8.8s ahead of Tänak overall, who felt happier with his Hyundai with the morning’s transmission issue fixed. But it wasn’t all perfect.
“Middle of this one we lost the hybrid, don’t know why,” Tänak revealed, “but yeah let’s see tomorrow.”
Takamoto Katsuta is fifth overall on his first ever home event as a WRC driver, and set an impressive pace to round out the day – just 1.8s off the pace.
“The feeling is getting better and better, the only thing is the leaves which have no grip, so it was a bit guessing if there is grip or not,” said Katsuta.
“It’s feeling pretty comfortable.”
Gus Greensmith is sixth overall as the sole remaining M-Sport Ford in the rally, but not particularly enjoying himself – his weekend compounded by a broken driveshaft in the morning.
That particular problem was cured in the afternoon but his pace in the afternoon was sedate at best, dropping some 27.5s on SS6 alone.
“Worst set of notes I’ve ever written in my life, I was driving on sight in there,” Greensmith said.
“Not much point doing tomorrow if they’re like that, so another long night.”
Sébastien Ogier is currently 10th overall, behind three Rally2 cars, following a puncture on Friday’s opening stage, and arrived to the end of SS7 with a story to tell too – co-driver Vincent Landais’ door looking severely scarred.
Ogier owned up: “I clipped a small barrier at the beginning. At the junction I was a little bit late on the brake, I hesitated and then I went for it but I hit the barrier really slowly.”
Sami Pajari leads the WRC2 category after Friday – a day in which the Rally2 competitors only got to contest two stages.
Emil Lindholm was quickest on the first stage that mattered, the second pass of Isegami’s Tunnel, but dropped his pace on Friday’s final test.
With title rival Kajetan Kajetanowicz crashing out, the pressure has been eased on Lindholm’s shoulder and he doesn’t need to win to claim the WRC2 title this weekend.
“We are aiming for P5,” Lindholm confirmed, “so [losing] 10s to Sami or Suninen should be fine.
Suninen was quickest on SS6 but the Hyundai driver’s pace wasn’t enough to rip the lead away from Pajari’s Škoda.
“I was struggling a bit with the car, we have to work with it and work with the driving to have a better package together,” Suninen admitted.
Pajari, who leads by 5.3s, added: “It has been a really good day. To be honest before the rally I was not expecting too much, but the feeling is really good so I have nothing to complain [about].”