Elfyn Evans mastered rain-soaked conditions at FORUM8 Rally Japan to build a 26-second lead after Friday’s shortened morning loop – but several of the top Rally1 runners exited early.
A relentless downpour combined with leaf-covered roads, over which drivers had made their concerns known before the event started meant a treacherous start to the rally’s first full day, with several of the FIA World Rally Championship’s leading crews caught out amidst the chaos.
The adverse conditions led rally organisers to cancel the Shitara Town test – but not before Takamoto Katsuta, Dani Sordo and Adrien Fourmaux had all come unstuck at the very same location in SS2.
Home hero Katsuta was the first to arrive at the right-hand bend 11.8km after the start. He locked up under braking and spun before hitting a tree which damaged the radiator on his Toyota GR Yaris. Having limped to the finish in EV mode, Katsuta and co-driver Aaron Johnston were able to carry out roadside repairs, although they trailed Evans by more than five minutes after two stages.
More drama followed shortly afterwards when Dani Sordo crashed at the same location, sliding his Hyundai i20 N down an embankment and out of the rally. Adrien Fourmaux, meanwhile, made a near-identical error which had the very same consequences. All crews were unharmed but the stage was subsequently halted.
Comfortably clear of second-placed Thierry Neuville but far from comfortable inside of his car, Evans – winner of both the asphalt speed tests – admitted the need for caution.
“I can’t really see where I’m going, so it’s not easy,” said the Toyota man. “There was more standing water in the second one, but both stages so far have been equally as bad.”
His team-mate Sébastien Ogier trailed Neuville by 16.6sec to complete the podium while, incredibly, WRC2 driver Andreas Mikkelsen placed fourth in his lower powered Škoda Fabia RS Rally2.
“The Rally1 cars are better, but the Škoda is better in one area,” joked the Norwegian, referencing his car’s heater.
Newly crowned WRC champion Kalle Rovanperä sat a further 51.7sec back in his GR Yaris. Running first on the road, the Finn faced some of the most difficult conditions with no line to follow in the lingering leaves and pine needles.
As well as topping the WRC2 Challenger standings, Nikolay Gryazin held sixth and headed M-Sport Ford Puma star Ott Tänak. Tänak was forced to reduce his speed drastically when his windscreen fogged up in SS2, and leaked almost three minutes as a result.