The Toyota driver carefully navigated through a trio of twisty asphalt stages – one affected by snow – with a 1m14.3s advantage over team-mate Sebastien Ogier.
World champion Kalle Rovanpera held onto third (+1m38.9s) to preserve a Toyota 1-2-3, ahead of Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi (+3m16.8s).
M-Sport’s Ott Tanak climbed to fifth while Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta completed an impressive clean sweep of stage wins to move to sixth. Katsuta ended the loop 13.8s behind Tanak and 33.7s adrift of fourth-placed Lappi.
Andreas Mikkelsen had started the day in fourth but slid to seventh ahead of fellow WRC2 runners Gregoire Munster and Nikolay Gryazin. Kajetan Kajetanowicz took over 10th spot after Heikki Kovalainen retired with a mechanical issue on stage 14.
Crews faced completely bone dry narrow and twisty roads for the afternoon loop which began with another success for home hero Katsuta.
Katsuta set a rapid pace through stage 13 (Nakuta Forest, 20.32km) to post a benchmark time 2.8s faster than Ogier, to claim his fifth stage win of the event to date.
It also marked the latest step of his comeback as the Japanese driver climbed to seventh ahead of Munster, who briefly stopped in the stage with a power issue.
Tanak also moved up the standings into sixth despite battling a misted-up windscreen during the stage, although this time it was caused by driver error, according to the Estonian.
Photo by: Tomasz Kaliński
Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1
At the front, rally leader Evans and third-placed Rovanpera maintained a controlled pace to safeguard their positions. Evans did however cede 10.7s to Ogier.
“It’s very difficult, especially in these very narrow and muddy places. You’re never happy when it’s like this but we’re doing what we’ve got to do for now,” said Evans.
Katsuta continued his impressive run of form by winning stage 14 (Lake Mikawako, 14.78km).
Last year’s Rally Japan podium finisher was fortunate his elevated road position meant he avoided the worst of a snow shower that whipped through the stage, creating slippery conditions for the later runners.
Katsuta managed to pip Neuville by 0.8s to win the stage with Tanak 2.7s adrift. The times helped Tanak and Katsuta leapfrog Mikkelsen into fifth and sixth respectively.
The snow shower offered yet another unexpected challenge for those behind. Evans managed to navigate the conditions but lost 41.3s,…