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Tom Howard

WRC Rally Japan: The Good, The Bad and a haunted tunnel

Top Performer - Thierry Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe

Thierry Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe were perhaps not the outright fastest pairing, but they made their impressive speed count when it mattered the most.

The Hyundai duo were in the victory hunt from the start, and most crucially, avoided all the hazards that Japan’s incredibly challenging twisty narrow roads could throw at them.

Neuville emerged with a share of the lead with Toyota’s Elfyn Evans on Friday but fell adrift of the Welshman by Saturday lunchtime. However, the Belgian duo were able to summon impressive speed across the afternoon to take 10.5s out of Evans to edge into a lead that they would hold onto to claim a second win of a difficult season.

Neuville and Wydaeghe headed an impressive Hyundai 1-2 from Ott Tanak in his final outing for the team in Toyota’s backyard. The significance of that feat was not lost on Neuville which made the win all the sweeter.

“It is great to win here because it is the Toyota homeland of course but it is also great to win here because it is the last round of the season, and now there is a two-month break, so it is always nice to leave with a win,” Neuville told Autosport.

A puncture for Evans let Neuville off the hook on Sunday, but an inspired tyre call to take two wet tyres would have sealed the victory regardless of the tyre failure, given Evans was without any wet weather rubber in his tyre package.

This has to go down as one of Neuville’s most impressive drives this season given the difficulty and lack of knowledge of the stages.

Honourable mentions: Elfyn Evans, Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais, Takamoto Katsuta, Emil Lindholm/Reeta Hamalainen, and Heikki Kovalainen

Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 (Photo by: Toyota Racing)

Elfyn Evans by his own admission has had a disappointing season, struggling to gel with the new Rally1 hybrid machinery, but in Japan there were signs he is making significant progress.

The two-time WRC runner-up was firmly in the victory hunt until a puncture ruined his cause on Sunday morning, meaning he would end the year without a win for the first time since 2019. Although gutted to miss out on what would have been a famous win, Evans declared that he has made a “massive set forward” with the GR Yaris and his driving style since Spain which bodes well for 2023.

Sebastien Ogier has every right to feel hard done by having ended Rally Japan with more stages wins (5) than any of his rivals, including winner Neuville. The Frenchman, joined by new co-driver Vincent Landais, led from the opening stage but his victory hopes were over after a costly puncture eon Stage 2 cost the pair almost three minutes.

Ogier clearly showed he had the speed to win the rally while Landais seemed to slot into his role alongside the eight-time world champion perfectly.

Podium: third place Takamoto Katsuta, Aaron Johnston, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT NG Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 (Photo by: Toyota Racing)

Takamoto Katsuta is arguably the most likeable character in the service park among drivers and teams and few you’d have begrudged him success in his homeland. The Japanese driver was helped up the leaderboard through tyre failures for his Toyota team-mates Ogier and Evans, but drove smartly under the weight of pressure from an expectant army of local supporters.

Katsuta dealt with the pressure admirably to secure a second podium of the year, alongside Aaron Johnston, and net fifth in the championship, to once again outline his growing credentials as one of the WRC’s most consistent drivers.

Title showdowns are always packed with pressure but Emil Lindholm and co-driver Reeta Hamalainen seemed to cope with it in their stride as they took out the WRC2 title by finishing third in class. The pair didn’t put a foot wrong on their way to glory as Finland completed a clean sweep of the WRC titles this year.

WRC2 Champions, Emil Lindholm, Reeta Hämäläinen, Toksport WRT Skoda Fabia Evo Rally2 (Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images)

Former Formula 1 race winner Heikki Kovalainen proved circuit racers can make strong rally drivers by scoring a well deserved point on his WRC debut, driving in the WRC2 class. The Finn, who won this year’s Japanese Rally Championship, finished a highly impressive fourth in class and 10th overall.

Team of the Week: Hyundai Motorsport

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1 with the team (Photo by: Fabien Dufour / Hyundai Motorsport)

Hyundai is making a habit of spoiling Toyota’s home events. It won at the team’s base in Finland courtesy of Ott Tanak and now its completed a 1-2 in Toyota City in Japan.

Had this been predicted after the team’s disastrous start to the year in Monte Carlo, where it was found to be several months behind with the development of its i20 N, few would have believed this would be the reality.

But Hyundai’s turnaround from a plethora of reliability issues in the first half of the season has been nothing short of remarkable. A quick glance of the statistics show Hyundai has outscored the manufacturers’ champions Toyota during the second half of the campaign on both victories 4-3 and podiums 10-9.

In fact Hyundai’s five wins this season thanks to Tanak’s triumphs in Sardinia, Finland and Belgium, and Neuville’s wins in Greece and Japan is the highest number of wins the marque has ever scored in a WRC season, yet it ends the year without any championship titles.

“We have mixed feeling as it has been our most successful season but we won nothing,” Hyundai’s deputy team director Julien Moncet told Autosport. "Thinking 10 or 11 months back to win one race it would have been impossible. I think we have to be happy with that we have achieved.”

Rally Japan was not a perfect result after Dani Sordo’s i20 N burned to the ground due to a suspected fuel leak, while Tanak also battled a transmission and hybrid issue. However, the team was still strong enough to defeat Toyota in its backyard, showing that is has closed the gap to the Japanese brand.

A strong winter for Hyundai could result in mach closer fought battle with Toyota next year.

Moments of Heartbreak

Dani Sordo, Candido Carrera, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1 car catches fire (Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool)

Dani Sordo and Candido Carrera literally saw their Rally Japan hopes go up in smoke after a spectacular fire broke out on Stage 2. The pair emerged from the scene unscathed but the car was completely destroyed as the fire took hold for an hour and 10 minutes.

"The car was smelling of petrol a lot and just here in a straight line the fire was coming between the seats with a lot of smoke, so I stopped the car," said Sordo.

"After a few minutes it started to burn. It was coming from the rear and we tried to put it out but it was absolutely impossible. I'm sorry for the team - to lose a car like this, it's a bad day."

Craig Breen’s troubled season took another twist after he misjudged a right hander, resulting in his Ford Puma spearing between an Armco barrier on Stage 4. Luckily the M-Sport driver and his new co-driver James Fulton were unharmed.


Breen did however rejoin the rally to reel off the final powerstage win of the year in tricky wet conditions.


Lucky Escapes

Sami Pajari was lucky not to be involved in a serious incident when he came across a civilian car that had appeared on a live stage. Luckily an accident was avoided and nobody was harmed. The FIA conducted a full investigation into serious safety breach, requesting additional safety measures to ensure the event continued in a safe manner.

While Takamoto Katsuta enjoyed an impressive run to a memorable home podium, he did endure one scare when he misjudged a tight junction on Saturday.


World champion Kalle Rovanpera could count himself lucky that he didn’t suffer more damage when he clouted a rock face on Stage 8 that only resulted in a puncture, which ultimately rendered the rest of his weekend as a glorified test session.

Top Tweets

It’s not often a tunnel makes an appearance at motorsport event but Rally Japan wasn’t your average event. The famous 380 metre long Isegami’s Tunnel feature saw crews travel through this unique feature that is deemed to be haunted.


It is fair to say the Japanese fans had missed the World Rally Championship judging by the huge welcome crews received on the liaison section between stages.


Japan has a rich history in the WRC and it was keen to display several of its rally conquering manufacturers in the Toyota Stadium service park.


Hot Shots

Gus Greensmith, Jonas Andersson, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1 (Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool)
Takamoto Katsuta, Aaron Johnston, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT NG Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 (Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool)
Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 (Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool)
Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1 (Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool)
Craig Breen, James Fulton, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1 (Photo by: M-Sport)

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