Thierry Neuville lost significant time to second placed Ott Tänak as the promised rain finally fell on Rally Japan’s penultimate stage, but is still well on course for victory.
The threat of rain on Sunday has been a talking point of the weekend before the rally even began, but it finally fell in time for the penultimate stage of the season – Ena City 2.
While it wasn’t chucking it down by the time the early drivers passed through the stage, the rain intensified as the stage progressed and had already done more than enough to soak the road and make it a real challenge for anybody without the correct tires.
Had Elfyn Evans not punctured on the first pass of Ena City, he likely would’ve lost the rally to Neuville anyway given he nor any of his Toyota team-mates took any wet tires in their package.
That point was proven by Kalle Rovanperä who had a particularly bad mix of rubber on his Yaris – running hard tires in conditions where wets were optimal but softs also more preferable.
“I think it was one of the most slippiest and trickiest stages I have ever done,” said the world champion. “I was bringing tofu like they do in Initial D, not so much about rallying.”
He was 2m30.5 seconds slower than M-Sport’s Craig Breen who had badly struggled on the day’s earlier three stages but came alive on SS18 with his four wet tires.
“I’m happy that I had the full wet in here because that was very tricky,” Breen admitted. “We have no excuses now for the powerstage so let’s see.”
Breen duly set the quickest time by some 8.5s with more than double the number of wets on his car compared to any of his rivals.
Prior to SS18, Neuville had 1m05.6s in hand over his team-mate but saw that advantage whittled down to 50.7s by the end of it owing to his cautious approach.
“That was a tough one,” Neuville confessed.
“I knew I can’t do any mistake, I had a one-minute gap so I took it quite steady but there was full aquaplaning everywhere. We did what we have to do, and one more to go.”
Sébastien Ogier’s speed was impressive considering he had no wet tires fitted onto his car, as he set the second quickest time to move past team-mate Evans into fourth place and slas 46.8s out of his deficit to third-placed Takamoto Katsuta as well.
Ogier is now just 23s behind the home hero with one stage left to run.
“It was a difficult stage with one hard on the car,” Ogier said, “the car was not turning so it was just about surviving to be honest.”
Evans’ pace was very unspectacular as, like Rovanperä, he lost over two minutes to the fastest time. He is now just 28.7s ahead of sixth placed Gus Greensmith.
He admitted it “would’ve been” tricky to fight for victory given the tires he had, but the puncture that cost him his victory shot exaggerated the situation as it meant he lost one of his three soft tires.
“For sure that was a pretty slow effort I guess but we were having moments anyway,” Evans said. “Impossible with these two hards on the car.”
Grégoire Munster vaulted into the lead of WRC2 with a sensational time courtesy of a mix of bravery and the correct tire choice.
“I pushed like hell,” he said. “I knew we had the good tire choice so I took every risk. We are a bit used to this condition in Belgium. We managed to get out and honestly that was the only goal.”
Munster’s heroics cost Lindholm the lead he has held for much of the rally, but that’s of little concern to him given he still remains on course for the championship title.
“The grip was changing in so many places – some places it was fine but some place oo la la, worse than ice,” said Lindholm, who suffered a half spin on the stage.