Thierry Neuville and his co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe won Rally Japan on Sunday

Aichi (Japan) (AFP) - Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won the season-ending Rally Japan on Sunday after a puncture ended nearest rival Elfyn Evans’s challenge, while world champion Kalle Rovanpera finished 12th.

Evans started the day 4.0sec behind overnight leader Neuville and closed the gap to just 0.6sec after a strong performance in the opening stage.

But a collision in the morning session forced Evans and co-driver Scott Martin to change a tyre on their Toyota, sending them tumbling out of contention and handing Neuville a clear run at victory.

Rovanpera had already been crowned 2022 world champion after winnning last month’s Rally New Zealand to cap a dominant season, but Hyundai’s Neuville was happy to win his second race of the season.

“It feels great,” said Neuville, who clinched third place behind Rovanpera and Ott Tanak in the world championship standings.

“It wasn’t an easy weekend or an easy year, but to end with a victory and showing a good speed all weekend is a great way to end the season.”

Neuville finished the race 1min 11.1sec ahead of second-place Tanak, who was driving his last race for Hyundai.

Hometown hero Takamoto Katsuta was third as Rally Japan returned for the first time since 2010.

Evans had looked set to push Neuville all the way on the final day but instead his puncture pushed him down to fifth, 4min 5.10sec off the pace.

“Naturally pretty gutted, really,” said Evans.

“It’s been a tough season and there was a chance to win here so we threw everything at it.

“I’m really sorry I couldn’t deliver it for the team at home.”

Rovanpera became the youngest world champion when he clinched the title on October 2, one day after his 22nd birthday.

Thierry Neuville and his co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe are hailed by crowds in Iwamura town, Aichi prefecture, on the final day of Rally Japan

A puncture on Saturday ended the Finn’s chances of claiming his seventh win of the season but he sedned the season with 255 points, 50 clear Tanak.

“It’s good to end the season – I’ve been waiting for it for a long time,” said Rovanpera.

“It takes a lot of strength to fight for the title and I’m ready for the holidays now.”

Toyota had already wrapped up the manufacturer’s title at last month’s Rally of Catalunya.

Finland’s Emil Lindholm and co-driver Reeta Hamalainen clinched the second-tier WRC2 title.

Race Results

1. Thierry Neuville-Martijn Wydaeghe (BEL/Hyundai) 2hr 43min 52.3sec, 2. Ott Tanak-Martin Jarveoja (EST/Hyundai) at 1min 11.1sec, 3. Takamoto Katsuta-Aaron Johnston (JPN-IRE/Toyota) 2:11.3, 4. Sebastien Ogier-Vincent Landais (FRA/Toyota) 2:23.6, 5. Elfyn Evans-Scott Martin (GBR/Toyota) 4:05.1, 6. Gus Greensmith-Jonas Andersson (GBR-SWE/M-Sport Ford) 4:07.4

Leading retirements: Dani Sordo-Candido Carrera (ESP/Hyundai)

Stage winners: Ogier (SS1, SS9, SS11, SS12, SS17), Evans (SS4, SS5, SS8, SS15), Rovanpera (SS2, SS6, SS16), Tanak (SS10), Neuville (SS14), Breen (SS18, SS19)

Final drivers championship standings: 1. Kalle Rovanpera (FIN/Toyota) 255 points, 2. Ott Tanak (EST/Hyundai) 205 3. Thierry Neuville (BEL/Hyundai) 193, 4. Elfyn Evans (GBR/Toyota) 134, 5. Takamoto Katsuta (JPN/Toyota) 122, 6. Sebastien Ogier (FRA/Toyota) 97, 7. Craig Breen (IRL/Ford) 84, 8. Dani Sordo (ESP/Hyundai) 59, 9. Esapekka Lappi (FIN/Toyota) 58, 10. Gus Greensmith (GBR/Ford) 44