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 is just not there and nothing is working.”
An anxious Evans pushed again and was rewarded with a third fastest time to further extend his advantage over Ogier.
“You just don’t know if somebody wants to go on a big push. You can make a really big dent in a minute in these conditions. We’re just trying to cover that at the moment”, said Evans.
Lappi struggled to extract speed from his Hyundai in the wet conditions but managed to hold onto fourth overall, although his margin over the charging Katsuta in sixth was cut to 25.9s.
Katsuta enhanced his chances of claiming fourth from Lappi by winning Stage 19 (Nenoue Kougen, 11.6km), which feature a wet road lined by fresh snow that had fallen overnight.
The fastest time which was 5.3s quicker than Neuville, arrived despite a brush with the barriers. It did however secure fifth overall from Tanak, with only 16.2 separating the Toyota driver from Lappi.
“Of course, I need to push, so I used the barriers like Sweden. Everything is okay – we touched a barrier but it was soft enough and it bounced us back on the road even quicker,” said Katsuta.
Evans was able to beat his nearest rival Ogier again, this time by 1.6s, to further extend his advantage ahead of the final three stages.
Andreas Mikkelsen continued to lead WRC2 in seventh overall ahead of Gregoire Munster, who survived a wild spin on stage 18.