Compared to the chaotic first full day on Friday, Saturday’s leg of Rally Japan was a calm affair.
With the leaderboard more or less established after the first full day, Saturday was – at least at the very front of the pack – fairly processional.
But that doesn’t mean to say there weren’t incidents or talking points from the penultimate day of the 2023 World Rally Championship season.
If you weren’t able to catch all of the action, or indeed were sleeping as it all unfolded during the night in your time zone, here’s what you missed from Saturday in Japan:
Opening stage red flagged
From an organizational standpoint, Friday ran without a hitch. The organizer was even swiftly praised, particularly by Thierry Neuville, for its action in cancelling SS4 with weather conditions not improving.
But Neuville was at the forefront of an alarming issue on the very first stage of Saturday.
The start of the stage was delayed by five minutes, but when Neuville did eventually start SS9 Nukata Forest it didn’t take long for him to encounter a problem: the zero car parked on the side of the stage.
The test was soon red flagged for Neuville, Takamoto Katsuta, Ott Tänak and Esapekka Lappi before it restarted 20 minutes later.
Neuville at least saw the funny side: “For sure it’s not the first time I catch a Toyota, but this time it wasn’t the good one!
“It took me a second to understand obviously we caught the zero car. I will get an explanation from the FIA later, it is what it is. [But] for sure it shouldn’t happen.”
Strange stop costs Munster in Rally2 fight
For basically the entirety of Rally Japan, just a handful of seconds have split two-time WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen and M-Sport’s Grégoire Munster.
With Munster already completing his seven permitted points-scoring events it’s a battle for RC2 class honors rather than WRC2, but it’s been thrilling nonetheless.
Over the course of the morning’s four stages, Munster clawed just 1.4s out of Mikkelsen’s advantage, but that meant he trailed him by just 3.4s. However his Ford Fiesta Rally2 suddenly shut down on SS13, forcing him to stop to restart it and slip to 12.6s behind. Cruelly, Munster had been 7.7s ahead (and therefore set to overhaul Mikkelsen) before his unplanned stop.
At the end of the day, Munster trails Mikkelsen by 8.3s with six stages to go on Sunday. This one will go down to the wire.
Elsewhere in WRC2, Kajetan Kajetanowicz has moved into third place as Heikki Kovalainen retired with transmission trouble.
It started snowing!
“This rally just keeps on giving,” quipped Kalle Rovanperä.
“We thought we had seen the worst, but the weather always amazes us here!” added Sébastien Ogier.
Just when the drivers thought the conditions were becoming more consistent, flurries of snow began to fall in the afternoon towards the end of SS14. The climate had turned on its head, and as Friday proved when there’s a change in the weather front that change is felt extremely quickly.
And most drivers were on hard tires.
“I didn’t know there was even a chance of rain or snow this afternoon,” said WRC2 leader Andreas Mikkelsen. “Not great.”
It proved to just be a light flurry, but there are more snow showers forecast for Sunday. Ott Tänak sounds like he’d welcome it – if not for rally reasons.
“It’s snowing, yeah… Christmas. So, happy Christmas!” he smiled.
Katsuta on a mission
Prior to Rally Japan, Takamoto Katsuta had won 15 stages throughout his entire WRC career. This weekend alone he’s added, effectively, another 50% onto that total.
It’s gut-wrenching to contemplate where Taka-san could be on his home rally without that incident on Friday’s opening stage, but nonetheless he’s atoned for that with some superb driving thereafter.
Beginning Saturday down in ninth, Katsuta has leapfrogged the three leading Rally2 cars into sixth, and has reduced a 25.1s deficit to Ott Tänak to 14.1s heading into Sunday.
Tänak may not be at the peak of his powers, but to take over 20s from a world champion is clear proof of Katsuta’s progress. A top-five finish, and maybe even a fourth place, looks a possibility tomorrow.
Evans doing what he has to
It was far from the most exciting day for rally leader Elfyn Evans, but with a lead close to two minutes heading into Saturday he had nothing to gain but everything to lose.
His heart must have been doing cartwheels when the snow unexpectedly arrived towards the end of the day, and indeed Evans leaked over 40s to the fastest time, but he remains safely in first place with his team-mates Sébastien Ogier and Kalle Rovanperä holding up their end of the bargain too – also safe in second and third.
Despite his lead Evans was slightly frustrated on Sunday, fighting his natural instincts to accept losing time on stages. But with such a healthy margin, deep down he knew it was the correct strategy.
“I’ve probably been a bit too careful at points but it was always going to be difficult to judge with such a big gap,” he said.
Going into Sunday the Welshman leads by 1m15.0s.