WRC

Petter Solberg edges into Rally Japan early lead

Petter Solberg edges into Rally Japan early lead

Petter Solberg holds the early lead in Rally Japan at the end of the two day action on leg one. The privateer placed his Citroen in the lead, after taking the wins on the 3rd and 4th stages. Petter Solberg and Philip Mills, Citroën C4...

Petter Solberg holds the early lead in Rally Japan at the end of the two day action on leg one. The privateer placed his Citroen in the lead, after taking the wins on the 3rd and 4th stages.

Petter Solberg and Philip Mills, Citro?n C4 WRC, Petter Solberg Rallying.
Photo by Tony Welam.

The Norwegian has been amazing over the Thursday and Friday route in Japan considering he has had the flu. "It feels great to finish the first day in Japan, as the overnight leader," Solberg said.

"We know, and we have shown before that we are able to fight with the others when everything is perfect, and today it has been. Well, maybe except myself. I can really feel that the fever is definitely not helping, and at the end of the long stages today, I had to fight hard to keep focus and I know I lost time. Hope another night with some good sleep will help me. Have no special plan for tomorrow, will just get back out there and do my best," he added.

The day was filled with action and changes -- out side of the steady drive of today's leader -- with changes in the top competitors. Champion points leader Sebastien Loeb was the sweeper and by the midway point, his Citroen WRT was taking a beating to the point he now sits sixth in his C4, a full 54.5 seconds off the pace of Solberg.

"I'm trying to push as hard as possible. I feel I'm driving well and I feel good in the car. But I see the gap increasing inexorably," saidLoeb. "Let's not draw hasty conclusions. We'll see what happens tomorrow and whether our position on the road was responsible for the gaps today. I remember that I was 1m 30s behind on the first day of Rally Mexico, and I still won, so we shouldn't be counted out yet!"

With Loeb out of the top five the battle for second came down to Mikko Hirvonen, Sebastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala. At the midway point Hirvonen was fourth but mere seconds away form his Citroen rivals. In the afternoon the Finn attacked for position, climbing the ranks to finish under 10 second to the overall leader.

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, Ford Focus RS WRC08, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team.
Photo by Ford Motor Company.

Hirvonen is confident his starting position tomorrow will put him into the lead, "My plan was to build my pace slowly as the day progressed. I'm sure the guys behind will attack tomorrow, but I'm ready for it.

"Tomorrow's stages are similar in their characteristics. Road sweeping for the early starters was an issue but having said that, second wasn't a bad start position. I will be second in the order tomorrow, so I'll have to wait and see if that has an effect," he added.

Ogier had other ideas and decided to back off towards the end and hold the final podium spot before making his attack. Banking thatthe 20 second will be easy to make on Solberg tomorrow the young Citroen driver is after his second win of the season.

"I didn't push in the last stage in case my rivals want me to be first out tomorrow," smiled the Ogier. "I'm happy with my day and my place. But I can't say I really like these stages and these conditions. I don't know yet if I'll be in a position to battle for victory right till the end, but we're only twenty seconds behind, so everything's still possible!"

Ogier will need to watch his back as he makes his push forward. Just a second behind after ten stages sits Ford's Latvala. After a setback dropped in to fifth the Finn is looking to gain position tomorrow, he knows a strong finish is needed to mathematically stay in the points fight.

"I had a comfortable speed in the first stage but had no split times coming into the car, and I was shocked by the times of the others at the finish," explained Latvala. "I could have driven faster, and would have done so if I had been able to see the splits. It was frustrating. I had a good feeling in the corners where conditions were soft with big ruts. The grip was good there, so I pushed hard in the ruts and it worked well."

Daniel Sordo and Marc Marti.
Photo by Citro?n Communication.

Taking point for the Citroen Junior team, Dani Sordo is fifth and around half a minute down on his rivals. The Spaniard can take some solace though, as he is still ahead of Loeb -- his normal teammate until the decision was made that Ogier should run for the main team on all gravel rallies for the rest of this season. An oil leak in the afternoon didn't help Sordo's chances of keeping up with the top four.

"We tried to lose as little time as possible but the car was less efficient," Sordo recounted. "I'm very happy that we were able to get back to service in Sapporo, and looking at our overall classification, it didn't go so badly for us in the end. Tomorrow we'll have a good start position, so our plan is to attack!"

Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson rounded out the top eight at the end of the first leg. Henning took his first stage win of the season on stage five, just edging his brother Petter by one second. Henning will start tomorrow seventh, well over a minute behind on the leaders after getting slowed down from the torn roads.

"I have never driven stages likes this in my life," commented Henning. "The ruts in the road this afternoon were ridiculous -- the car felt bogged down throughout SS6, it was unbelievable and ten times worse than it was this morning. We were sitting so far down in the ruts and we just couldn't get any traction at all -- it felt like we were driving on rails. It's difficult to know the best way to drive in such big ruts -- it's a real art and it makes for very difficult driving. I'm pleased to have made it to the end of today but I'm just hoping the stages will be in better condition tomorrow so I can gain more confidence and push harder."

The notable retirement today was Khalid Al Qassimi in the third factory Ford Focus. The racer from Abu Dhabi pushed too hard on today's morning stage and quickly found himself on his side after sliding wide aginst the tree-line. Both Al Qassimi and co-driver Michael Orr were ok, but the car was beyond repair to finish the event.

"I entered a long, fourth gear corner a little too fast," said Al Qassimi. "The road was narrow and as the car slid into a ditch, the impact broke a brake calliper. That threw us against a tree and we rolled. The car ended on its side, right on the edge of the road. Although we weren't hurt, we couldn't get out of the car initially. The car is badly damaged on Michael's side from the impact against the tree. It's frustrating for the rally to end after just 2km, but I can't change that."

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