Marcus Gronholm took six stage wins in his Ford Focus WRC on the first day of Rally Japan en route to a 10.5 second lead at the end of the first leg of the World Rally Championship event. "After our win in Finland on the last rally, I felt ...
Marcus Gronholm took six stage wins in his Ford Focus WRC on the first day of Rally Japan en route to a 10.5 second lead at the end of the first leg of the World Rally Championship event.
"After our win in Finland on the last rally, I felt confident here before the start," commented the Finn. "It has been a good battle with Loeb today but I must admit I was hoping my lead would be bigger tonight. It's obviously going to be a hard fight and I need to stretch my advantage tomorrow because the gap at the moment isn't big enough. One small mistake could be costly."
Points leader Sebastien Loeb set the fastest time in each of the other four stages, but as the final two of these were the short Obihiro superspecials, the Kronos Citroen driver was not able to make up the gap Gronholm had pulled out on the longer stages.
While the first day was mostly run under sunny skies, the road conditions were still largely wet with lots of standing water on the route as a result of heavy rains earlier. Gronholm, always most comfortable on gravel, set times three, four, five seconds faster than Loeb on most of the longer stages, reveling in the conditions.
"It was definitely slippery," Gronholm confirmed. "Fortunately the roads dried up a bit in the course of the day."
Loeb had to start the rally in first position on the road thanks to his championship lead, but opening the road wasn't as costly for him as it has been at some other events.
"I lost some time on the first loop because of my starting position, but fortunately not very much," Loeb said who ended up at one point asking his team to check the function of his semi-automatic gearbox command.
Once he was sure that all was fine, the French ace admitted his dislike of Pawse Kamuy, the opening stage with a second pass on SS5. "I've got a problem with Pawse Kamuy. For three years now I've never quite got to grips with that stage. That's where Marcus built up the bulk of his advantage. I was quicker in Kanna and he was in Puray -- that's what a fight is all about! I'm sure it will be very exciting again tomorrow."
Gronholm's teammate, Mikko Hirvonen, is third in the second Ford, just over a minute off Gronholm's pace. Hirvonen did have a moment of concern on leg one's final stage. "About 3km after the start I hit a concrete post on a bridge on a fifth gear right bend," he explained. "The impact bent a rear wheel and I lost my confidence. I dropped a few seconds over the remaining kilometres, especially in the slow corners, and if I back off even a tiny bit then Marcus and Seb move ahead."
Manfred Stohl (OMV Peugeot), Daniel Sordo (Kronos Citroen) and Chris Atkinson (Subaru) make up the top six.
Subaru and Petter Solberg's season long bad luck continued in the 11th round of competition. After having a good start in the first three stages, Solberg had a brake problem and lost two minutes, dropping him to 10th on the leaderboard. The Norwegian ended the day eighth overall.
"We are trying very hard and everybody is absolutely doing their best, but we still need to do more," said Solberg. "We had some more problems this afternoon and we know why, so we'll look at the problem with the car and see what we can do for tomorrow. It's certainly tough, but then it's tough for the entire team and that's how it is at the moment."