Elfyn Evans led home an historic Toyota 1-2-3 on the final round of the 2023 World Rally Championship season, Rally Japan.
Sébastien Ogier and Kalle Rovanperä completed the podium, but Esapekka Lappi denied Toyota a perfect 1-2-3-4, repelling the advances of a charging Takamoto Katsuta.
Evans’ final winning margin was 1m17.7s over team-mate Ogier.
“It feels pretty nice after last year, it was a big disappointment,” Evans said.
“Massive well done to the team, car’s been great and 1-2-3 for Toyota on home soil is great, so really proud.”
Defending Rally Japan winner Thierry Neuville led the way after the first of three runs around the Toyota Stadium superspecial on Thursday evening, but thereafter it was Evans who led the way.
In treacherous conditions on Friday morning the Welshman checked out – a small overshoot the only moment to speak about as he opened up a lead of 26.0s over Neuville. Neuville started coming back at the Toyota on Friday afternoon but crashed just a few seconds onto SS6 to end his hopes of victory.
That promoted Ogier into second place, but the eight-time world champion had an incident of his own as he ran off-line and hit an Armco barrier. He was able to continue but with a damaged rollcage tube, his Toyota team had no choice but to change it. That meant Ogier earned a one-minute penalty for leaving service six minutes late.
Evans therefore inherited a lead of almost two minutes, and with world champion Rovanperä in third Toyota was on-track for a podium lockout as early as Friday.
The rest of the rally therefore became about survival for all three GR Yaris pilots, who kept their noses clean to secure the perfect team result. The victory was the third of Evans’ season and eighth of his career.
Katsuta could well have featured on the podium himself had he not been caught out on a tricky right-hander and damaged the front of his Yaris on SS2.
It was a corner that would also claim Hyundai’s Dani Sordo and M-Sport’s Rally1 returnee Adrien Fourmaux, whose weekends were ended as they fell off the road and into a stream – Fourmaux unintentionally perfectly parking next to Sordo.
Katsuta escaped but lost five minutes and all hope of victory. But his pace was supreme, winning 10 stages throughout the event to vault his way from the edge of the top 10 to fifth at the end of the rally.
It looked as if the home hero would have enough to depose Lappi, but the Hyundai driver’s response was strong on Sunday’s final loop, and he wound up fourth by 20.0s. Katsuta was left confused by a sudden lack of grip across the afternoon and eventually settled for fifth.
“For sure in terms of speed it was very good, I have to bring this feeling into next year,” Katsuta said.
“I still feel disappointed, but this is the situation. I just try not to do the same thing [again] when I have the potential.”
Ott Tänak’s final event for M-Sport ended on a whimper in sixth place, four minutes down on rally winner Evans.
“Honestly difficult to say [how to sum the season up],” he said. “Probably I get frustrated very easily when I am not on the pace and this year we haven’t really been on the pace anywhere.
“Not happy with myself either, so it’s been tough but we gave it a go.”
Andreas Mikkelsen claimed seventh overall and victory in WRC2 – the fourth of his title-winning campaign. He was made to work hard for the Rally2 class win though, as the Norwegian was chased all the way by M-Sport’s Grégoire Munster.
The fight was ultimately settled in Mikkelsen’s favor when Munster spun his Fiesta Rally2 on Sunday morning, losing over 20s and his chance at a class win. But worse was to come for Munster who slipped off the road on the third-to-last stage and retired.
Nikolay Gryazin finished eighth and second in WRC2, ahead of fellow Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 pilot Kajetan Kajetanowicz who claimed the WRC2 Challenger title. Hiroki Arai rounded out the top 10 in a two-wheel-drive Peugeot 208 Rally4.