Ogier and Loeb still in the running for victory
The first day of Rally Japan was very open and none of the victory contenders was eliminated. Among them, the two crews of the Citroen Total World Rally Team are lying in third and sixth places. Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia, the early leaders of the event, are in the top 3 with Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena playing a waiting game.
Rally Japan began on Thursday evening with two runs through the super special under the Sapporo Dome, a stadium that usually hosts football or baseball matches. Sebastien Ogier, who's a real specialist in this type of challenge, set the two quickest times and became the first leader of the rally!
After a good night's sleep, the teams set off for Tomakomai to compete on the gravel stages. At the end of the 27-km Iwanke stage (SS3), Ogier confirmed his excellent form by setting the second-quickest time, 3.2s behind Petter Solberg : "I felt at home straight away. In moments like this I trust my felling and I went pedal to the metal. Obviously we're at a bit of a disadvantage because of the sweeping, but it's a good start to our first Rally Japan."
Loeb was sixth in the stage, 24s behind the leader, so he wasn't quite as happy as his team-mate. "Sweeping doesn't fully explain why we're so far behind! I don't know if it's me who's not yet in the rhythm, or if the car's setup isn't perfect. I felt I hadn't enough grip in the quick corners so it was difficult to set good times."
Solberg was again fastest in SS4 and took the lead from Ogier. When the cars arrived back in the service park mid-afternoon, the gap between the two leading C4 WRCs was 10.3s. Loeb was 36s behind the Norwegian: "For the moment it's pretty average! We lost a lot of time in SS3 but we weren't quick enough in the next two stages. The team's found a weakness in one of the dampers in the service park and that could explain my lack of feeling."
Loeb managed to cut the gap by half to the front-runners second time through Iwanke (SS6). He was almost a minute behind the leader in the overall classification at the end of the first leg. "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," said a puzzled six-time world champion. "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!"
Ogier was third at the midday halt and he kept that position until the end of the day. "I didn't push in the last stage in case my rivals want me to be first out tomorrow," smiled the Frenchman. "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!"