The Toyota driver increased his overnight lead over Toyota team-mate Sebastien Ogier by 9.6s across Sunday morning’s three stages to move 1m24.6 clear.
Kalle Rovanpera kept Toyota’s 1-2-3 hopes alive ending the loop in third, 1m53.1s adrift. But the battle for fourth is hanging in balance with Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi 16.2s ahead of a charging Toyota driven by Takamoto Katsuta, who leapfrogged M-Sport’s Ott Tanak into fifth.
Sunday began with crews facing another real test of skill on wet and slippery twisty asphalt roads with a threat of snow in the air.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville emerged as the pacesetter in the first test of the day, stage 17 (Asahi Kougen, 7.52km), which will host the rally ending Power Stage in the afternoon.
The Belgian claimed a second stage win of the rally, posting a time 2.1s faster than a hard charging Katsuta, who had his eyes fixed on securing fourth overall. The Japanese driver was however lucky to survive a wild slide towards the end of the test.
Photo by: Tomasz Kaliński
Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1
His immediate rival Tanak wasn’t so lucky, suffering a half spin at the same corner where Katsuta had his moment. Tanak, occupying fifth overall, reached the stage end losing 5.3s to Katsuta as the gap between the pair in the standings to 9.6s.
“It was bin it or win it. We tried to bin it but not yet. I understeered into an escape road,” said Tanak.
Rally leader Evans refused to back off clocking the third fastest time to extend his lead over Ogier by 1.8s.
The following stage proved to be arguably the most difficult of the rally thanks to the incredibly low grip from the narrow and twisty 22.92km Ena City road.
Neuville summed up the challenge stating, “for a last day of a rally you couldn’t imagine anything more difficult than this.” The Hyundai driver was able successfully complete the test, posting a fastest time in the process, 6.1s faster than Katsuta, who maintained his charge.
Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool
Takamoto Katsuta, Aaron Johnston, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT NG Toyota GR Yaris Rally1
Katsuta continued to reduce the gap to a resigned Tanak which stood at 0.4s at the end of the test.
“We have nothing to fight against him so there is nothing we can do,” said Tanak. “It is tricky and the balance is so bad, it’s like driving with a puncture at the front. It’s nothing new this year, the feeling…