Elfyn Evans led a Toyota 1-2-3 in Rally Japan to end 2023 WRC season, with Sebastien Ogier and Kalle Rovanpera completing the podium.
Elfyn Evans led FORUM8 Rally Japan by 1min 49.9sec overnight after streaming-wet conditions in Friday’s opening leg caught out several of his FIA World Rally Championship peers. Torrential rainfall, thick fog and roads covered with damp leaves were just some of the challenges faced by crews on the first full day of action at the 2023 season finale. Survival was the aim of the game and, while several of his rivals faltered, Evans barely put a wheel wrong.
A minor overshoot in the second stage of the day did not prevent the Welshman from reaching the lunchtime service halt with 26sec in hand over Thierry Neuville, his main competition for the runner-up spot in this year’s drivers’ championship. Neuville, winner of the 2022 event, responded in the afternoon by slicing Evans’ advantage by more than half with a blistering run through Isegami’s Tunnel 2. But his comeback was cut short when he crashed his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 into a tree on the first corner of the following test.
The Belgian wasn’t the only driver to be caught out by the conditions and joined team-mate Dani Sordo as well as M-Sport Ford Puma hotshot Adrien Fourmaux on the retirements list after both drivers left the road at the same location in SS2. Evans was left clear at the top of the standings and, with two of his Hyundai rivals sidelined, headed a GR Yaris podium lockout for Toyota Gazoo Racing.
After Neuville’s demise, Sébastien Ogier became Evans’ nearest challenger – although the eight-time world champion conceded that catching up with his colleague would be a tall order. Ogier slid sideways into a barrier on SS5 but was able to continue with minimal time loss. The impact did, however, damage the chassis of his Toyota. He collected a one-minute time penalty as the required repairs caused him to check out late from the final service of the day.
Running first on the road, newly crowned WRC champion Kalle Rovanperä was hindered by lingering leaves, and so he took a cautious approach as he carved a cleaner line for those behind. The 23-year-old’s consistency paid off as he finished the day error-free in third overall, just 16.7sec back from Ogier.
Toyota could have enjoyed a clean sweep of the top four positions were it not for an error by Takamoto Katsuta on the same corner which caught out Sordo and Fourmaux. His car brushed a tree and sustained radiator damage, but the local star was able to make it back to service after completing the stage in EV mode and carrying out repairs on the liaison section.
That incident, combined with the time penalties for lateness after his roadside fix, cost Katsuta over four minutes. He languished in ninth as a result, although the three benchmark times he posted throughout the day were clear signs of what could have been. Such was the rate of attrition that WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen, driving a Rally2-specification Škoda Fabia RS, placed fourth overall. Behind him was Grégoire Munster, also competing in Rally2 machinery.
WRC2 Challenger series hopeful Nikolay Gryazin brought his Fabia home an impressive sixth overall ahead of Esapekka Lappi, who struggled for confidence in his Hyundai i20 N. Ott Tänak was eighth on a day which saw his Puma plagued by gremlins. The Estonian dropped almost three minutes when the car’s windows misted up on SS3 and he leaked more time in the afternoon with a performance-sapping electrical issue. Heikki Kovalainen, the ex-F1 driver, completed the top 10 whilst also holding third in WRC2.
Elfyn Evans was in no mood to take risks on Saturday morning at FORUM8 Rally Japan. And, with a lead of well over one minute already in hand, he had no need to either. Halfway through this penultimate day of the 2023 FIA World Rally Championship season, Evans remains in control with a commanding 1min 35.5sec advantage over his Toyota Gazoo Racing team-mate Sébastien Ogier. The foundations for that buffer were laid on Friday when, in waterlogged conditions, Evans was one of few drivers to enjoy a clean run.
Saturday’s opening two stages remained slippery and the Welshman took a cautious approach, dropping around 15 seconds to Ogier as a result. He did, however, top the timesheets for both runs of the Okazaki City super special which led the crews into a remote tyre fitting zone.
Kalle Rovanperä completed a GR Yaris 1-2-3 although the Finn, like colleague Evans, lost some ground to Ogier. He trailed the Frenchman by 35.2sec whilst Hyundai i20 N driver Esapekka Lappi – almost two minutes further back – climbed to fourth.
The Rally2-specification cars of Andreas Mikkelsen, Grégoire Munster and Nikolay Gryazin covered the next three positions while Ott Tänak and Takamoto Katsuta, both recovering from time losses on Friday, held eighth and ninth overall. Ex-F1 driver Heikki Kovalainen completed the top 10.
Elfyn Evans secured a lights-to-flag victory on Sunday at FORUM8 Rally Japan as his Toyota Gazoo Racing team locked out the top three positions on home soil. Welsh driver Evans clinched his eighth career win by finishing a dominant 1min 17.7sec ahead of team-mate Sébastien Ogier at this final round of the season, confirming his place as the runner-up driver in the 2023 FIA World Rally Championship for the third time.
Evans laid the foundations for glory early in the asphalt fixture when he charged to a near-two-minute advantage in Friday’s rain-soaked opening leg. From then on, he was able to control the rally by adapting his risk level to suit the ever-changing conditions. Kalle Rovanperä’s capture of the final podium spot capped off a perfect season for Toyota, which has heralded titles for Rovanperä and co-driver Jonne Halttunen, as well as a third successive manufacturers’ championship victory.
Ogier, who has undertaken a part-time programme in 2023, damaged his GR Yaris car’s chassis when he slid into a barrier on Saturday. The required repairs meant he exceeded his allocated service time, collecting a one-minute time penalty which ultimately prevented him from threatening Evans’ advantage. He finished 28.8sec ahead of Rovanperä while Esapekka Lappi, driving a Hyundai i20 Rally1, held off Toyota hotshot Takamoto Katsuta to claim fourth by 20.0sec.
Home hero Katsuta won nine of the rally’s 21 stages but ended just over three minutes adrift of victor Evans due to an incident on Friday morning. Without that misdemeanour, the 30-year-old could well have celebrated his maiden victory. Ott Tänak was unable to strike a good balance with his M-Sport Ford Puma, and sixth place was all the Estonian could manage on his final outing for the British team. He returns to Hyundai Motorsport’s line-up next season.
WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen added another class victory to his tally as well as finishing seventh overall in a Škoda Fabia RS Rally2. Behind him were fellow Rally2 battlers Nikolay Gryazin and Kajetan Kajetanowicz. Kajetanowicz’s result of second in WRC2 Challenger was enough for him to beat Gryazin to that title, and he becomes the first driver to win the series since it was introduced at the beginning of the year.
[Note: The story is as per press release]