With heavy rain forecast for Friday, we always knew that the first proper day of Rally Japan was going to be eventful given how the downpours affected things at the end of 2022.
And so it proved, with one third of the Rally1 field crashing out.
With the action unfolding at an unsociable timezone for the majority of our readers, as we did last year we will be recapping the major talking points you may have missed at the end of each leg.
So here is the roundup from Friday’s seven stages:
Two cars off at the same corner (more on that below), conditions Thierry Neuville said were too dangerous to drive in and scared him more than anything else before, and the ultimate cancellation of SS4 says what you need to know.
It was wet; very, very wet on Friday – especially in the morning.
Conditions were certainly bordering on the extreme as next-to-no driver got through unscathed, and huge gaps began to open up very early on in the rally because of it. There weren’t many who were enjoying it out there.
“We might be the best drivers in the world, but nobody wants to drive in these conditions,” Neuville said at service.
Mercifully, the rain stopped falling for the afternoon loop but the roads were still incredibly wet, and lingering fog certainly ensured things remained challenging.
Sordo’s Isegami’s Tunnel curse
Twelve months ago, Dani Sordo’s Rally Japan came to a frightening end when his Hyundai caught fire and burnt out to a hulk on, instantly, Japan’s most iconic stage – Isegami’s Tunnel.
This year the Spaniard was looking forward to getting a bigger taste of the Japanese roads, but ironically his event ended on the very same stage as it did last year.
However this time it was an accident that ended Sordo’s run. In simply horrendous conditions, the 40-year-old touched the brakes and the car locked up, effectively accelerating off the road and down into a ditch.
Before then, he had been second fastest on the splits but instead was left to lick his wounds for a second year running.
Fourmaux out at the same place
It largely went unnoticed with the loss of Sordo and the interruption of the stage, but on his first Rally1 start in over a year Adrien Fourmaux failed to emerge from Friday’s first stage.
He didn’t feature on the TV coverage at all, but the M-Sport driver is understood to have gone off at exactly the same corner as Sordo did, running just one car behind him on the road.
That caused a stage interruption, but was a devastating way for the Frenchman’s return to the top class to start after such a positive season thus far.
Katsuta in the wars
He didn’t slip off the road like Sordo and Fourmaux did, but Takamoto Katsuta was also caught out by the same corner of Isegami’s Tunnel.
It was a crying shame, because the home hero’s pace was sensational up until he locked up and did significant damage to the radiator of his Toyota – 13.0s up on eventual stage winner Elfyn Evans at the second split.
Having to nurse his wounded Toyota through the rest of the morning, Katsuta leaked five minutes to drop outside the top 20.
But the Japanese star’s response was impressive, winning the first stage of the afternoon with a Toyota in full working order – but this almost frustrated him more as it proved how competitive he could have been were it not for his incident.
He kept up the momentum for the rest of the afternoon as he swept all three stages.
Neuville dropped the ball
Determined to deny Toyota another home victory, Thierry Neuville looked as if he was preparing to do just that as Friday morning gave way to Friday afternoon.
Trailing rally leader Elfyn Evans by 26.0 seconds after the dramatic first loop, Neuville cashed in on a poor run from Evans on SS6 to close to just 10.5s adrift with three stages of the day remaining.
It looked for all the world that Neuville was going to challenge Evans’ lead at the very least, if not steal it, but just a matter of seconds onto SS6 Neuville got it wrong and ran wide into a tree at the first corner of the stage.
He would go no further.
“I had a bit too much energy into the compression, the car bottomed and it kicked me out the line,” Neuville told DirtFish.
“Obviously there was no real space for going wide, so yeah it was an immediate stop.”
Toyota holds a 1-2-3
So that means Evans is comfortably out front at the end of the first full day, leading a Toyota 1-2-3 by almost two minutes ahead of team-mate Sébastien Ogier who took a one-minute penalty after leaving service six minutes late as damage that was sustained in an impact with an Armco barrier on SS6 was repaired.
World champion Kalle Rovanperä was (strangely for an asphalt event) disadvantaged as the first car on the road but, as a result of Ogier’s penalty, is just 16.7s off second place.
In such torrid conditions, the Rally2 cars have been shining with the WRC2 podium infiltrating the overall top six.
WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen is fourth overall, narrowly ahead of M-Sport’s Grégoire Munster and Toksport team-mate Nikolay Gryazin.
Esapekka Lappi is the sole surviving Hyundai in sixth, while Ott Tänak is having a miserable run on his final rally for M-Sport, complaining that “the car is s***ting itself” with a mysterious problem where he said he had “no anti-lag and throttle is in road mode” on the afternoon loop to lie eighth and almost five minutes off the lead.