Thierry Neuville has rounded out the World Rally Championship season with victory for Hyundai on Toyota’s home turf, as long-term contender Elfyn Evans slipped back to fifth with a puncture.
It was a dream result for Hyundai as Ott as it recorded a 1-2 finish; Ott Tänak signing off his three-year stint with Hyundai with a second-place finish ahead of Takamoto Katsuta who took his third career podium finish on his home rally.
Heading into the final day, Neuville led Evans by just four seconds, but the threat of rain meant everything had the potential to be turned on its head. Hyundai and Toyota had different weather information and thus the two victory contenders went opposite ways with tire strategy – Evans carrying no wet tires but Neuville opting for two of each compound (two wets, two softs and two hards).
That favored Evans early on who reduced Neuville’s lead to just 0.6s after Sunday’s opener, but his shot at victory was extinguished on the very next test as he ran wide on a hairpin and picked up a puncture; feeling the pacenote came a bit too late for him to tackle the corner on the correct line.
But when the heavens open in time for the penultimate stage of the rally, Neuville would likely have prospered anyway. As it was, with over a minute in hand, he just had to back off and convert his lead into victory which he duly managed by 1m11.1 seconds.
“It feels great,” said a jubilant Neuville.
“It wasn’t an easy weekend, it wasn’t an easy year but it’s always great to end the season like this. We need to work hard over the winter to get well prepared for next year but thank you to everybody.”
Tänak was never really a match for this team-mate in Japan but a trouble-free rally earned him an eighth podium finish of the season. Although his immediate thoughts were focused on if Katsuta had done enough o
“We’ve won some rallies, we had quite a few podiums and that’s everything we could do this year,” he reflected. “Let’s see in the future.”
Katsuta wasn’t particularly happy to have earned a podium at the expense of his team-mate at Evans, but his third place was a source of pride for him, Japan and of course Toyota.
“Huge thanks to the team and all of the supporters who are on the stage, and even on the road sections in this weather they are still supporting me,” said Katsuta.
“I have no words, I cannot speak right now!”
On potentially his final ever rally as a reigning World Rally champion, Sébastien Ogier collected fourth place on debut with co-driver Vincent Landais. Ogier had led Rally Japan after Thursday night’s spectator-friendly test but a puncture on Friday’s opener wrecked his weekend.
It was a typically strong fightback drive from Ogier though, who at one point was dead last in the rally, to fight back to fourth at the finish, while team-mate Evans who only just clung onto fifth by 2.3s.
“Naturally I’m pretty gutted,” said Evans.
“It’s been a tough season, obviously there was a chance for it [the win]. We threw everything at it, I’m just really sorry for the team I couldn’t deliver the win for them at home.”
Gus Greensmith finished his first WRC rally since Greece in sixth, but it wasn’t the smoothest of rides as a broken driveshaft and an intermittent power-steering problem hampered him throughout the weekend.
Things were bleaker for Craig Breen though who must have hoped a change in navigator would have changed his fortune. But on debut with James Fulton, Breen slipped off the road and into an Armco barrier on Friday morning and would therefore finish outside the points in Japan.
The first powerstage win of his career was at least some consolation though as Breen benefited from a decision to take four wet tires on his Puma.
“Unfortunately the heated windscreen was starting to pack in but just glad to get through it,” said Breen.
“It’s been yet another trying weekend – I feel sorry for everyone involved. We collectively deserve much better results than we’ve been getting, but it just wasn’t to be.”
Kalle Rovanperä was in the completely opposite boat to Breen with the worst compound of tire fitted on the powerstage – the hards. Sliding wildly off the start-line, Rovanperä was uber cautious through the test and dropped two minutes in just seven miles.
His world championship-winning season therefore ended on a muted note outside the top 10; his weekend unravelling when he slid into a rockface on Saturday morning and then bent a rim on the very next stage, forcing him to earn road penalties and complete one stage with a punctured tire.
Dani Sordo had the worst weekend of all though as his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 burnt out to a crisp on Friday morning. Smelling fuel inside the car, Sordo suddenly stopped on SS2 as the problem developed and flames soon began to take over.
With the battery catching fire, there was nothing Sordo could do to prevent the fire from spreading and he therefore just had to sit and watch as his car burnt to the ground.
Grégoire Munster’s Rally Japan started off with drama as he slid wide on Thursday night’s stage and wiped out a park bench. But come the end he didn’t just secure his first WRC2 podium but his first WRC2 victory in Japan, vaulting up the standings from third as the rain began to fall.
He finished seventh overall in his Hyundai i20 N Rally2, while third in class was more than enough for Emil Lindholm to become the new WRC2 champion.
He had headed into Rally Japan in a big battle with Kajetan Kajetanowicz to win the title, with Andreas Mikkelsen also in the frame but absent from the weekend and unable to influence the battle.
But from as early as SS2 the championship became Lindholm’s to lose as Kajetanowicz crashed out and wasn’t able to restart.
Up until the penultimate stage, Lindholm had led the way but Munster passed him on the penultimate stage and then Teemu Suninen overhauled him on the powerstage. But Lindholm secured the points he needed to win the title with just a top five finish necessary.
Former Formula 1 driver and this year’s Japanese champion, Heikki Kovalainen, rounded out the top 10.