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WRC Rally Japan

WRC Japan: Neuville heads Hyundai 1-2 to upset Toyota homecoming

Thierry Neuville headed a Hyundai 1-2 at Rally Japan as the South Korean marque scored its fifth victory of the World Rally Championship season.

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Neuville briefly came under pressure from Toyota’s Elfyn Evans on Sunday morning before a puncture for the latter on Sunday morning gifted Neuville a golden opportunity to prevent Toyota from scoring a victory on home soil.

Despite a late heavy rain shower, Neuville and co-driver Wydaeghe went on to score their second win of the season by 1m11.1s from team-mate Ott Tanak, competing his his final outing for Hyundai.

Home hero Takamoto Katsuta headed Toyota’s charge in third ((2m11.3s) to claim his second podium of the season.

Japan’s return to the WRC schedule after 12 years away provided an all-new challenge to crews courtesy of a new 19-stage all asphalt event based around Toyota City. The narrow and twisty roads offered little room for error testing crews to the limit.

The rally quickly evolved into a head-to-head between Neuville and Evans with the pair sharing the lead at Friday’s midday service.

Evans managed to pull clear of Neuville by 3.0s come the end of a shortened Friday itinerary after organisers were forced to cancel Stage 3 and Stage 7.

Evans continued to extend his lead on Saturday morning as the gap increased to 6.5s before a charging Neuville overhauled the Welshman in the afternoon to open up a 4.0s advantage heading into Sunday.

The lead was reduced to 0.6s on Sunday morning before Evans suffered a puncture which allowed Neuville to complete a comfortable win. Evans was left to settle for fifth (3m14.8s) after losing significant time in the treacherous wet conditions, having gambled on slicks at the start of the day.

Neuville’s victory set a new benchmark for most wins in a single WRC season for Hyundai. The marque further outlined its strong second half to the season with Tanak finishing second.

The Estonian was unable to consistently match the pace of Neuville and Evans at the front having struggled to find the sweet spot in his i20 N. The 2019 world champion also battle a loss of hybrid power during Friday.

Katsuta produced a solid drive throughout his home event with his only blemish an error at junction that resulted in a brief run up a grass bank. The Japanese climbed up the leaderboard after trouble struck all three of his Toyota team-mates.

Eight-time world champion Sebastien Ogier emerged as the early rally leader on Thursday after winning the opening test.

But his victory hopes were ended after Friday’s second stage when his GR Yaris suffered a puncture that cost the Frenchman and his new co-driver Vincent Landais almost three minutes. The pair managed to recover to fourth by the end of the rally (2m23.6s), scoring five stage wins in the process.

Gus Greensmith, Jonas Andersson, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Gus Greensmith, Jonas Andersson, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: M-Sport

M-Sport’s Gus Greensmith led the Ford team’s hope to claim sixth overall after team-mate Craig Breen crashed on Stage 4, which brought out the red flags and severely damaged the barriers, that forced the second pass to be cancelled.

Stage 4 became a talking point of the rally as a civilian car managed to venture onto a live stage, breaching safety protocols which prompted an FIA investigation.

Breen rejoined the rally on Saturday and a decision to take four wet tyres on Sunday helped the Irishman to the final powerstage win of the season. 

It proved to be a difficult rally for new world champion Kalle Rovanpera, who briefly held the lead after Stage 2.

The Finn’s event unravelled on Saturday when he understeered into a rock face and picked up a front right puncture. A subsequent knock to another wheel cost him more time, rendering Sunday a test day as he finished 12th overall, two spots behind ex-Formula 1 driver and WRC2 debutant Heikki Kovalainen.

Hyundai’s Dani Sordo was the only Rally1 retirement following a spectacular fire on Stage 2 that completely destroyed his i20 N.

In WRC2, Gregoire Munster made the most of Sunday’s wet conditions to snatch a maiden class win from Teemu Suninen. Emil Lindholm finished third which was enough to claim the championship after rival Kajetan Kajetanowicz retired following a heavy crash on Friday. 

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