Thierry Neuville wasted no time in challenging Toyota Gazoo Racing on their home rally, claiming victory on FORUM8 Rally Japan’s opening stage to lead on Thursday night.
Hyundai’s i20 N Rally1 cars asserted their dominance on the curtain-raising super special stage inside Toyota City Stadium. Neuville led the charge, with team-mates Esapekka Lappi and Dani Sordo securing the second and fourth positions respectively.
In stark contrast, Toyota's fleet struggled to find its rhythm on the tight and technical opener, with Takamoto Katsuta emerging as the highest-placed GR Yaris driver in fifth.
Neuville, locked in a battle for second place in the drivers’ championship against Elfyn Evans, narrowly edged out Lappi by seven-tenths of a second while Ott Tänak, piloting an M-Sport Ford Puma, trailed Neuville by 1.4 seconds to round out the early podium.
The Belgian, who also topped the shakedown, expressed confidence by saying: “There are no questions from our side. It’s just about enjoyment and trying to go for another victory. That's what we want to do this weekend, but it won't be easy at all—and it might be even more challenging than two weeks ago in the Central European Rally after the road conditions we have seen during recce.”
Katsuta headed sixth-placed Rovanperä, fresh from his second WRC title just a fortnight ago. M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid returnee Adrien Fourmaux followed closely while Toyota duo Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans found themselves almost five seconds adrift of the lead in eighth and ninth.
Acknowledging the need for improvements, Ogier admitted, “It's not really nice to lose over four seconds straight away, but that's how it is. We need to check why. Of course, I was not taking so many risks, but still, it's a lot to lose.”
Nikolay Gryazin was the man to beat in WRC2 and completed the top 10 in a Toksport WRT3 Škoda Fabia RS Rally2. He and Poland’s Kajetan Kajetanowicz are fighting for the WRC2 Challenger title this week and the latter trailed him by 2.2sec.