A day of mixed fortunes for the Subaru World Rally Team as Chris Atkinson achieved the best result of his WRC career with third overall, but Petter Solberg retired from the lead of the rally on the penultimate stage. The Norwegian had held the lead since SS4, but when his car ran into a 21kg rock on the road in SS25 his rally came to an abrupt end. Subaru's young charger Chris Atkinson put in a superb performance throughout the rally, scoring three stage wins, including one on the longest stage of the 2005 season. The 25-year-old's previous best result in a World Championship event came in Rally Australia 2004 where he finished fifth overall, despite driving a Group N Subaru Impreza. His result equalled the best-ever finish of an Australian in the WRC and Chris became the first Australian in 13 years to step onto the WRC podium.*
* The last Australian to finish on the podium was Ross Dunkerton who finished third in New Zealand in 1992.
SS22 0750hrs Panke Nikorpet 1 (17.04km)
Leg three started with the first of two runs through the Panke
Nikorpet stage near the town of Shintoku northwest of Obihiro. The very
narrow, fast stage left little margin for error with ditches and other
hazards close to the roadside. The surface was very soft and muddy after
the rain that fell during Leg two, but Marcus Gronholm and Petter
Solberg continued their high-speed duel for the lead. The Finn took his
seventh stage win of the event, but Solberg remained close behind,
driving according to the split times to finish one second behind.
Francois Duval recorded the third fastest time through the stage and
moved up to fifth overall ahead of Chris Atkinson and Harri Rovanpera.
The Mitsubishi driver was over half a minute slower than Gronholm after
his engine cut out at the first corner and he dropped behind Atkinson to
seventh on the leaderboard.
Fastest Stage Time: Gronholm (Peugeot) 9:39.7
SS23 0826hrs Penke 1 (24.88km)
After the high-speed Panke Nikorpet stage crews drove 11km to
the longest test of the Leg. Chris Atkinson in his Subaru Impreza
WRC2005 went quickest, secured the sixth stage win of his WRC career and
leapfrogged Duval in the overall standings. The Australian moved up to
fourth overall after Mitsubishi drivers Galli and Rovanpera both lost
significant amounts of time. Near the end of the speed test Galli left
the road and collected left-rear suspension damage and crossed the
finish line more than five minutes slower than Atkinson. When he stopped
to check the car on the road section after the stage finish he
discovered that the damage was extensive and he retired from the rally.
Rovanpera also ran wide and damaged the suspension alignment on his
car's right-front corner. The Finn did not sustain major damage but lost
more than 50secs over the rest of the stage. Rally leader Petter Solberg
was third-quickest, just under nine seconds slower than Gronholm and the
gap between the pair closed to 22.5secs. After the stage crews headed
back to Obihiro for a 30 minute service.
Fastest Stage Time: Atkinson (Subaru) 14:58.8
SS24 1053hrs Satsunai 3 (2.10km)
The first stage after service took place at the short spectator
stage six kilometres from Kita Aikoku. After experiencing problems in
the morning's loop of stages, Harri Rovanpera took his fourth stage win
of the rally at the figure-of-eight Superspecial. The Finn set a time
identical to that of Citroen's Sebastien Loeb with Marcus Gronholm
third-quickest, only 0.2secs faster than Solberg, who retained the
overall lead of the rally by over 22secs.
Fastest Stage Time: Rovanpera (Mitsubishi) / Loeb (Citroen) 1:36.8
SS25 1215hrs Panke Nikorpet 2 (17.04km)
The penultimate stage brought bitter disappointment for the
Subaru World Rally Team when rally leader Petter Solberg retired from
the Leg and the rally. On a corner one kilometre from the start line
Solberg, who was running 13th on the road, hit a massive rock that had
been thrown onto the racing line by one of the cars ahead. The impact
damaged the front-right suspension and steering components of his
Impreza and prevented him from continuing any further. The Norwegian's
misfortune promoted Gronholm into the lead of the rally with Loeb
elevated to second and Solberg's team-mate Chris Atkinson into the final
Fastest Stage Time: Gronholm (Peugeot) 9:36.4
SS26 1251hrs Penke 2 (24.88km)
The final stage of the rally was a re-run of 25km Penke stage.
The speed test started open and fast but became progressively more
twisty and technical as the road snaked through the forest to the flying
finish. Marcus Gronholm took his eighth stage win of the event to secure
victory at Rally Japan, his second win of the 2005 season. Chris
Atkinson's impressive performance continued as he set the second fastest
stage time to finish in third place, his best-ever result in the FIA
World Rally Championship. Sebastien Loeb was third fastest through the
stage to finish second overall and clinch his second FIA drivers'
Fastest Stage Time: Gronholm (Peugeot) 14:42.5
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Lapworth
Firstly I want to congratulate Chris on such a great result. He's put a tick in all the boxes this weekend. He has driven consistently, fast, under pressure and on some extremely difficult roads and I'm sure he'll benefit a lot from the experience. On the other hand, clearly all of us at Subaru are devastated by Petter's retirement from the lead. But the only reason it hurts so much is that it was so good up to that point. If we can take any consolation at all it is that, in performance terms, we were back where we should be. The set-up changes we have made to the car's suspension have taken its performance to another level and I think that bodes well for the remaining rallies this season.
It's shocking, I almost can't believe it. I don't really know what to say. Things had been perfect for the 24 stages before and we were so close to the result we wanted, but then it just went in an instant. We could do nothing to avoid the rock, it was right in the line, it happened so fast and that was that. I'm absolutely gutted. There's nothing more to say.
It's awesome, I'm more than happy with the result and to get my first ever podium is pretty special too. We've done this rally before and today's result just goes to show how much difference experience can make. I can't wait for next year! We took things fairly steady yesterday when the road conditions were difficult but today the whole package felt good and we decided to push a little harder. Things worked out perfectly. Getting on the podium in front of Subaru's home crowd makes it extra special but at the same time I really feel for Petter - he's been terribly unlucky.
News From Pirelli
Paul Hembery, Pirelli Motorsport Director
Having dominated the event with Petter right up to the end we share the disappointment of his retirement, particularly given the fantastic performance of the Subaru-Pirelli package here. On the brighter note we'd like to congratulate Chris Atkinson. Securing a podium place like this in his first year is a stunning achievement.