Thierry Neuville ends 2022 WRC season with a Rally Japan win from Ott Tanak in Hyundai 1-2, as Takamoto Katsuta was third.
Thierry Neuville and Elfyn Evans share identical times atop the FORUM8 Rally Japan leaderboard after Friday’s shortened opening loop which took its toll on several frontrunning crews. The all-new asphalt event is already living up to its billing as one of the trickiest rounds of the season and Dani Sordo – three times a podium finisher this year – will go no further after his Hyundai i20 N set ablaze in the day’s opener.
Sordo and co-driver Cándido Carrera emerged unscathed but the stage was subsequently red flagged. The next test – Inabu Dam – also had to be cancelled owing to the delays caused by the incident. Hyundai i20 N star Neuville was second to Kalle Rovanperä at Isegami’s Tunnel but dethroned the Finn on Shitara Town. He looked set to lead the way by mid-leg service until Evans, driving a Toyota GR Yaris, outpaced the entire field by 4.3sec to make the honours even.
Ironically, the pair also posted identical times on Thursday’s shakedown. Rovanperä made it two Toyotas inside the leading trio – ending just seven-tenths further back. All three drivers complained of understeer on the twisty and technical speed tests. Ott Tänak – starting his final event for Hyundai – trailed the frontrunners by 9.7sec after complaining of a transmission issue.
Six seconds behind him was Takamoto Katsuta, who also struggled with understeer on his Yaris. Gus Greensmith dropped over a minute in SS4 while nursing a broken driveshaft on his Puma. The Briton did, however, fare better than his M-Sport Ford colleague Craig Breen, who crashed into a barrier on the very same stage.
Thierry Neuville seized the lead of FORUM8 Rally Japan, toppling long-time polesitter Elfyn Evans with a gutsy Saturday drive. The penultimate leg of this season finale was a game of two halves. Kicking off the day with a three-second lead over his Hyundai i20 N foe, Evans took time from his rival on two of the morning’s three asphalt speed tests – building his advantage to 5.9sec by the mid-leg service.
But the Toyota GR Yaris driver fell out of his rhythm after the halfway halt and Neuville saw his chance. The Belgian pulled back 2.6sec through the second run of Nukata Forest, but it was at Lake Mikawako – the next stage – where he really made his mark. The lead changed hands for the first time since Friday morning when Neuville, despite complaining of differential slip, outpaced his rival by 5.9sec.
He was in no mood to compromise either, and edged the Welshman through the closing Okazaki City super special to end the day 4.0sec in front. Evans was left a little dumbfounded by the sudden change in tempo and claimed that, despite no set-up changes being made between the morning and afternoon loops, he’d lost the feeling with the front end of his car. With a hefty 35.9sec gap between Evans and third-placed Ott Tänak heading into Sunday’s finale, it’s looking likely to be a thrilling two-way fight for glory.
Estonia’s Tänak moved into the leading trio early on when Kalle Rovanperä punctured. He, too, struggled to find a good balance aboard his i20 N and made constant alterations throughout the day with varied success. He may have been out of touch with the frontrunning pair, but Tänak did manage to stretch his buffer over the fourth-placed Toyota of Takamoto Katsuta.
The local ace felt unable to push to the maximum and ended 24.6sec in arrears. The drive of the day undoubtedly went to eight-time world champion Sébastien Ogier, partnered by new co-driver Vincent Landais. A Friday puncture means the Yaris man is out of contention for victory but he climbed from 10th to fifth after collecting three stage wins, leapfrogging Gus Greensmith in the process.
Greensmith’s M-Sport Ford Puma also hit trouble on Friday and his tricky run continued as an intermittent power steering fault reared its head in the afternoon. With five stages remaining the Briton sits 3min 25.4sec back from leader Neuville. WRC2 cars filled the rest of the top 10 – headed by Škoda Fabia star Emil Lindholm. A comfortable 47.6sec lead in the category means the Finn is on target to clinch the title come Sunday.
Sami Pajari, Grégoire Munster and Teemu Suninen completed the leaderboard while Rovanperä languished in 11th overall. Although the SS8 puncture was to blame for Rovanperä’s initial drop down the order, he tumbled even further back when an impact in the next stage buckled his only spare wheel.
The Finn bolted the deflated tyre back onto the car for the morning’s finale to prevent further damage, protecting the bent rim in readiness for the 50 kilometre jaunt back to service. He picked up 40sec in penalties for lateness and, with nothing more to fight for, spent the afternoon trialling different set-ups.
Persistence paid dividends for Thierry Neuville in the FIA World Rally Championship finale as he grabbed the FORUM8 Rally Japan victory from under the nose of Elfyn Evans. Hyundai i20 N driver Neuville headed Toyota GR Yaris rival Evans by just four seconds heading into Sunday’s five-stage finale having traded blows with the Welshman since the very first stage on Friday morning.
The stage was set for a thrilling final day of the 2022 WRC season and, as the cars roared into morning service for the last time this year, tyres were the talk of the town. Meteorologists from both camps had their work cut out and there were contrasting opinions on whether rain would fall in the early afternoon.
Neuville believed it would and took an even spread of hard compound, soft compound and wet weather Pirelli rubber. Evans, on the other hand, wasn’t convinced and opted for a 50:50 split of hard and soft compound tyres. It appeared the latter had made the correct choice when he moved to within six-tenths of Neuville after blitzing the Belgian through Asahi Kougen. The excitement was short-lived, however, as disaster struck on the very next test.
A miscommunication between Evans and co-driver Scott Martin saw the duo run wide on a right-hand bend, nudging a kerb with the Toyota’s rear left wheel. The resultant puncture took more than 1min 30sec to change – stopping the victory scrap dead in its tracks as he plummeted down the order.
While rain did arrive for the final two tests, it was no worry for Neuville. He cruised to the finish 1min 11.3sec clear of departing team-mate Ott Tänak, who benefited from Evans’ heartbreak to secure an important 1-2 for Hyundai on the home soil of archrivals Toyota Gazoo Racing.
Takamoto Katsuta also moved up the order at team-mate Evans’ expense to secure his second podium of the season on local roads. The 29-year-old trailed Tänak by a minute at close of play with Yaris colleague Sébastien Ogier a mere 12.3sec behind. Ogier leapfrogged Evans – who eventually finished fifth, with a plucky run through the penultimate test. Ending only 2min 23.6sec down on victor Neuville, the Frenchman was left to rue what could have been as he lost almost three minutes with a puncture on Friday morning. Sixth place went to M-Sport Ford’s Gus Greensmith.
Grégoire Munster scorched to the front of the WRC2 category with a wet weather masterclass, edging fellow Hyundai i20 N Rally2 driver Teemu Suninen in the process. It was, however, Emil Lindholm who wrapped up the WRC2 championship title by finishing third in the category and ninth overall. Ex-Formula 1 racer Heikki Kovalainen completed the top 10 on his WRC debut.
Here’s the WRC Rally Japan results: https://www.wrc.com/en/results-standings/rally-results/rally-spain/results/
[Note: The above is as per press release with no edits made]