Thierry Neuville leads Rally Japan overnight ahead of Hyundai team-mate Esapekka Lappi after Thursday evening’s superspecial stage.
This year’s Rally Japan kicked off with a 1.3-mile blast around Toyota Stadium, where drivers competed against each other head-to-head.
Neuville is known as a superspecial specialist and delivered on the billing on SS1, defeating now two-time World Rally champion Kalle Rovanperä in their heat to take the lead of the rally.
The Belgian’s effort was 0.7s better than Lappi’s.
“There’s no pressure from our side, just enjoyment and try to go for another victory,” said Neuville, who won Rally Japan 12 months ago.
“That’s what we want to do this weekend but it won’t be easy at all. It’s going to be challenging out there but really looking forward to it.”
Ott Tänak joked that he felt “big pressure” facing off against home hero Takamoto Katsuta on the superspecial, but the M-Sport Ford driver came out on top of that duel – setting the third fastest time overall, 0.7s off Lappi and 1.4s off the lead.
Katsuta meanwhile was fifth fastest, 1.3s adrift of Dani Sordo’s Hyundai.
Rovanperä ended up sixth quickest, but felt the Toyota was “really s*** to drive” on the superspecial. “Unfortunately we go here three times, so for sure we need to find something,” he commented
His team-mates Ogier and Elfyn Evans didn’t produce particularly impressive SS1 performances either. Evans was 0.2s off his team-mate and therefore slowest of the Rally1 runners in ninth overall, 4.9s off the pace but at least understood why, feeling “he had a ban run as usual for a superspecial.”
But eighth-fastest Ogier was more bemused: “Honestly not really nice to lose four seconds straightaway but that’s how it is, we need to check why,” he said.
“There wasn’t a lot of risk here but still a lot of time lost.”
On his first competitive stage in a Rally1 car in over a year, M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux was seventh fastest, 4.5s off Neuville’s pace.
Nikolay Gryazin, who is fighting Kajetan Kajetanowicz for the WRC2 Challenger title this season, was fastest of the WRC2 drivers to hold an early 10th overall in his Škoda.
Recently crowned champion Andreas Mikkelsen was 1.3s slower, 0.9s ahead of Kajetanowicz.