Belgian dethrones Elfyn Evans to set up final day thriller with duelling duo split by just 4.0sec.
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.
“The day has been good for us, but it has been a challenging one,” Neuville reflected. “We have been struggling a bit with the balance throughout the day but we got it better for the afternoon. Let’s see what we can do tomorrow.”
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.
Leading positions after Saturday:
1. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N 1hr 51min 28.3sec
2. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +4.0sec
3. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Hyundai i20 N +39.9sec
4. T Katsuta / A Johnston JPN Toyota GR Yaris +1min 4.5sec
5. S Ogier / V Landais FRA Toyota GR Yaris +2min 46.7sec
6. G Greensmith / J Andersson GBR Ford Puma +3min 25.4sec