Status quo in the Gronholm/Loeb showdown With Marcus Gronholm (Ford/BFGoodrich) and Sebastien Loeb (Citroen/BFGoodrich) both going off in Japan, it was back to square one this weekend for the top-two in the championship chase...
Status quo in the Gronholm/Loeb showdown
With Marcus Gronholm (Ford/BFGoodrich) and Sebastien Loeb (Citroen/BFGoodrich) both going off in Japan, it was back to square one this weekend for the top-two in the championship chase as Ford/BFGoodrich's Mikko Hirvonen picked up his second win of the season. The duel between the two challengers for the 2007 title, who are still split by four points (in Gronholm's favour), will now resume on mid-November's all-asphalt Rally Ireland, a new addition to WRC the calendar and penultimate round of this year's championship.
The fourth stage of the first morning of the 2007 Rally Japan saw Marcus Gronholm's face turn as ashen as the Hokkaido forests that hosted this weekend's WRC fixture. After topping the Drivers' points table since the month of May, the Finn came through the first three frosty stages in style to pull out an early lead over his team-mates and compatriots Latvala and Hirvonen. Next up was the short SS4, a 2.73km test that was more akin to a motocross track than a classic world rally stage? but that didn't prevent Marcus Gronholm from being caught out like a rookie.
"I over-estimated one particular right-hand corner in recce. A number of trees had been cut down since last year's rally and I believed I could take the corner faster than in 2006, but the conditions were very slippery," related the Finn humbly. While there were effectively fewer trees, there were also now a number of stumps on the outside of the turn and the side of Gronholm's Ford swiped one of them so hard that the technical stewards refused to allow him to profit from the SupeRally ruling to re-start on Saturday morning?
In the minds of many observers, the incident tipped the balance in the title chase definitively in the favour of Loeb who was third overall at that point and apparently on target to move back ahead in the points table. The same thoughts must surely have crossed the mind of the Frenchman himself and there's a good chance he won't have had too much trouble falling asleep on Friday evening as heavy rain moved in over Obihiro.
Further drama was to follow the next morning, however, when Loeb's C4 WRC slid wide through a fast righthander on SS13 before coming to a halt on a pile of branches. The Citroen crew was unable to manhandle their car back onto the road and the weekend's clash between the defending champion and his Ford rival ended in a draw, with the pair still split by four points as they headed back to Europe on Sunday afternoon.
With cold weather blowing in from Siberia, all eyes now turned to Finland's Mikko Hirvonen who seized this unexpected opportunity to cruise home to the third WRC win of his career at the wheel of his BFGoodrich-shod Ford Focus WRC.
Once again, though, the Finn's exploit will possibly be overshadowed by factors beyond his control. Last year, in Australia, his maiden world class win passed relatively unnoticed since it coincided with Loeb securing his third world title following Gronholm's off. This weekend's circumstances were strikingly similar and Hirvonen's success today in Obihiro risks not receiving the acclaim it deserves as a result of the headline-grabbing misfortunes of Loeb and Gronholm
The Finn took command after SS6 and then defended his lead to the flag despite the countless pitfalls of the Japanese terrain which was made more challenging still by the weekend's cocktail of frost, fog and mud. The opening stages of Leg 2 saw him shrug off the anticipated pressure from Sebastien Loeb after he had eased past the on-form Latvala the previous afternoon. There can be no doubt that his win in Japan today was every bit as merit-worthy as his emphatic victory in Norway earlier in the season.
The 2007 Rally Japan was held two months later in the year than previous editions and will go down in history as one of the most treacherous rounds of the championship because of its fast, extremely slippery stages which saw Gronholm, Loeb, Latvala, Pons and Atkinson all go off. Simply reaching the finish was a feat in itself and Dani Sordo (2nd, Citroen/BFGoodrich) and Henning Solberg (3rd, Ford/BFGoodrich) had the joy of joining Hirvonen on the podium.
For BFGoodrich Japan served as a useful dress rehearsal for the forthcoming Wales Rally GB since its partners used either the soft or extra-soft compound versions of the g-Force Profiler with extra 'cuts' added to their pattern as a function of the amount of water, mud or loose gravel that needed to be cleared.
Quotes from Japan
MIkko Hirvonen (Ford/BFGoodrich) "What a day it's been! We were expecting a fight with Loeb but when I saw his car in a ditch I slowed down. Then, when I saw Latvala parked up a little further on, I slowed down even more. The conditions were so muddy that any of the corne