Heavy rain, thick fog, pine needles… even snow combined to try to knock Elfyn Evans off his stride. But while the Welshman faltered in tricky conditions on the Central European Rally last month, he was resolute in his pursuit of first place on Japan's season closer.
A result that secured runner-up spot in the final standings for the third time in his career, it also banished the memories from 12 months ago when, fighting for the win, he picked up a puncture and dropped back.
This time, Evans completed the all-Tarmac finale 1:17.7s in front with Sebastien Ogier second as Kalle Rovanpera's high-speed lap of honour – he became world champion for a second time in Germany almost four weeks ago – ended with third place.
A podium lockout for home team Toyota also meant a first WRC success on Japanese soil for the squad, the winner nine times in 13 attempts in 2023.
While the final leg proved decisive in Japan last season, it was Friday's opening leg that made the difference this time around.
Torrential rain, fog and layers of leaves and pine needles coating the road in the myriad forest sections put the onus on survival rather than speed.
After reporting not having “the best run” as he dropped 4.9s on Thursday evening's 1.3-mile Toyota Stadium superspecial, Evans performed when it mattered most. He won Friday morning's first stage, Isegami's Tunnel, by 4.0s to take the lead by 3.8s, an advantage he built to 26.0s with the quickest time on SS3.
With SS4 cancelled due to fog preventing the medical helicopter from taking flight, Evans returned to Toyota City's midday service in the lead and with his GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid relatively unscathed, despite a small overshoot on the day's second stage.
But he was one of the lucky ones. Adrien Fourmaux, on his return to Rally1 level with M-Sport, followed Dani Sordo in crashing out on the same corner 7.3 miles into SS2. Neither would continue due to the level of damage caused by aquaplaning off the road.
Takamoto Katsuta also hit trouble at the same point but kept going to the stage finish, albeit in EV mode and with the front of his Yaris bashed up following contact with a tree.
The moment, combined with road penalties picked up while he and co-driver Aaron Johnston worked to fix the damage, dropped the Japanese out of contention to repeat his 2022 Japan podium.
Katsuta was eventually classified 3:10.3s down on Evans in fifth, his capture of nine stage wins an indication of what might have been for Toyota's development driver.
Esapekka Lappi, on his final outing as a permanent member of the factory Hyundai team before he goes part time in 2024, finished 20 seconds ahead of Katsuta in fourth. Having crashed heavily on the last two events, Lappi's conservatism on day one was as wise as it was apparent.
For a fleeting moment, Thierry Neuville looked to be in the ascendancy when he closed to within 10.5s of Evans after winning the repeat of Isegami's Tunnel on Friday afternoon. But crashing into a tree on the outside of the first corner on the very next run would dictate otherwise, the Belgian stopping for the day with significant damage to the front of his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid.
“It was really tough out there, the roads were undrivable,” Neuville said on Friday evening. “We are used to difficult conditions, but there is a limit, and there was no reason to take extra risk when we knew the weather would be better this afternoon.
“We got off the start line of SS5 and went through quite a big compression at the first corner; I hit the sump guard and lost the front of the car. With these narrow roads, there was no space to go wide and we stopped in the trees and damaged the suspension.”
Neuville restarted on Saturday and was fastest four times on Sunday, including on the rally-deciding Power Stage.
“We could have been in the fight for victory considering the speed we have,” Neuville said. “I'm really disappointed for that mistake but it is what it is, and I apologised to the team.”
Although he made it through SS5, Ogier's Yaris was somewhat scarred at the finish of SS5 after the Frenchman got out of shape and struck a roadside barrier.
Damage sustained was such that it couldn't be repaired in time during end-of-day service on Friday and a one-minute lateness penalty was served.
However, the additional time wasn't enough to deny Ogier a fourth podium to go with the three wins he secured earlier in his partial-season campaign in 2023.
“The conditions brought some big surprises during the whole weekend,” Ogier said. “We expected the difficult start on Friday and a lot of drivers made mistakes or lost time, including us. Then we realised we were in a strong position to deliver the one-two-three for the team and my focus was on bringing that result home, but it's never easy in slippery and tricky conditions.”
Rovanpera secured Toyota's podium lockout in third after a rally compromised by opening the road during the treacherous Friday leg. He was 28.8s down on Ogier at the finish at the end of his second title-winning season.
Behind Katsuta, Ott Tanak signed off from a largely unhappy return to M-Sport in sixth position after electrical issues struck on Friday. The Estonian, who is back at Hyundai next year, had started the event with an outside shot at second in the drivers' points but finished down in fourth behind Neuville and runner-up Evans.
With Scott Martin co-driving, Evans began Sunday's decisive leg with a 1:15.0s margin over Ogier having built up a lead of 1:49.9s on Friday when conditions were at their worst.
His cushion allowed him to ease off slightly on Saturday when conditions improved, although they remained treacherous in places with patches of snow and more rain on the penultimate stage of the day.
Although Ogier had cut his lead by almost 40 seconds, Evans was not overly concerned.
“We were maybe too careful in some places, but it was always going to be a bit tricky to judge our speed today with such a big gap,” Evans said at the completion of Saturday's action.
Given his comfortable margin, Evans could continue to trade pace for caution on leg three with the result marking the eighth victory of his WRC career.
“It's an amazing result and we could not have asked for a much better event at home for Toyota,” said Evans, who turns 35 next month. “It's been a long and difficult weekend with exceptionally tough conditions which we came out of with quite a margin.
“Since then it's been a challenge in a different way, trying to manage the gap rather than push flat-out, but I'm very happy to get there in the end.”
After setting the fourth fastest outright time on SS2, 2023 category champion Andreas Mikkelsen was the driver to beat in WRC2 in seventh overall as he celebrated his fourth win of the season.
“This one was really nice,” Mikkelsen said. “It's been really challenging and our experience was key here. We made the difference on the first two stages and then from then on we tried to control it.”
Nikolay Gryazin beat Kajetan Kajetanowicz to eighth in the final order but it was the Polish driver who clinched the new-for-2023 WRC2 Challenger crown at Gryazin's expense.
Former European championship regular Hiroki Arai capitalised on his local knowledge to complete the top 10 in his two-wheel-drive Peugeot 208 Rally4 as legendary father Toshi retired on the final day.
Ex-Formula One driver Heikki Kovalainen was third in WRC2 when he stopped on Saturday with broken transmission. Ireland's Eamonn Boland made it home in 14th overall.