The turning point of the championship? A little more than a year after their thrilling battle on the Japanese stages and Loeb's win by a slender 5.6 seconds in 2006, Marcus Gronholm (Ford/BFGoodrich) and Sebastien Loeb (Citroen/BFGoodrich)...
The turning point of the championship?
A little more than a year after their thrilling battle on the Japanese stages and Loeb's win by a slender 5.6 seconds in 2006, Marcus Gronholm (Ford/BFGoodrich) and Sebastien Loeb (Citroen/BFGoodrich) return to the scene of that clash split by just four points in the 2007 Drivers' championship standings. This season's visit to Japan consequently promises to be just as heartstopping and, quite possibly, decisive.
No, the WRC contestants do not compete in the midst of Japan's famous skyscraper-lined cityscapes. Equally, no token Buddhist or Shinto temple serves as backdrop to the finish ceremony, and the winners do not pop open a triumphant bottle of sake on the podium?
Japan's round of rallying's premier series actually takes place on the country's northernmost island, Hokkaido, a shortish hop from the coast of eastern Siberia. Strictly speaking, Hokkaido is no longer an island. Since 1988, it has been linked with the rest of the country by a railway - the Seikan - which passes through the world's longest maritime tunnel which, at 53.26km in length, almost makes the Channel Tunnel seem like a weekend dig?
In the summer, Hokkaido is a favourite holiday destination for city-bound dwellers looking for a taste of open country and a chance to trade their work garb for a pair of Mizunos. In winter, the big draw is the skiing near Sapporo the town that held the 1972 Winter Olympics. Meanwhile, this autumn sees Obihiro host a festival given over to the chrysanthemum, the country's national emblem, and also Rally Japan, the 14th round of the 2007 World Rally Championship.
"This year, the event takes place almost two months later in the year, and the weather experts expect rain and temperatures ranging between 5 and 15C in the Obihiro region," observes Chief BFGoodrich Technician Patrick Letort. "Certain stages take place up in the hills more than 100km to the north, near Rikebetsu, one of Japan's coldest towns?"
The 2007 calendar ends with visits to Japan, Ireland and Wales (both in November), so the season promises to see a wet and often muddy final run-in. And why not a little snow into the bargain? That said, the FIA regulations preclude the use of studded tyres on all but the earlyyear's traditional winter fixtures, so WRC competitors will have to use the g-Force Gravel (Japan, Wales) and the g- Force Profiler (Ireland). They will doubtlessly opt for the soft, or even extra-soft compound variants of these products, with significant 're-cutting' of the patterns to help clear standing water and/or mud.
"Japan's stages are fast and above all narrow, but not all that hard-wearing on tyres. The Panke test runs along the side of a river, so tends to be wetter and sandier than the others."
Last year's showdown between Loeb and Gronholm was so fierce that the defending World Champion was prompted to quip at the finish that "even with square wheels, it would have been just as exciting?!"
An interesting thought? This year, following France's Rugby World Cup semi-final defeat against England, BFGoodrich has decided to supply British teams Ford and Subaru with oval tyres, and the French cars with round ones!
QUOTA. Priority 1 drivers have a maximum quota of 60 tyres, of which they are authorised to use up to 35 (rally + shakedown). These tyres were registered with the FIA on September 13.
12 'JOKER' TYRES. For 'long-haul' rallies, priority drivers have the possibility of trading 12 of their originally nominated tyres for alternative choices. The majority of the teams took up this option for this year's Rally Japan. These so-called 'jokers' had to be registered on Friday October 19 and will be sent out to Japan by airfreight.
TESTING RESTRICTIONS. As is the case with all 'longhaul' rallies, on-site pre-event testing in Japan is not permitted. Given that the date for this year's event is two months later in the year, the 2007 Rally Japan is seen as a new event for the men at BFGoodrich.
ROUTE OBSERVERS. Given Rally Japan's schedule and long road sections, BFGoodrich's route observers will have to work nightshifts to be able to relay information about stage conditions to the drivers in time for the morning's service halts. For them, Leg 2 will start at 11.30pm on Friday evening!
PRODUCTION P-WRC. Three drivers are still in contention for the P-WRC title, although Japan's Toshi Arai (Subaru/BFGoodrich), who will be on home ground this weekend, seems to have the edge over his rivals. The 2007 P-WRC calendar also takes in Rally Ireland and Wales Rally GB.
BFGOODRICH IN JAPAN. The American tyre brand secured its first wins in Japan before its arrival in the WRC. In 2002, BFGoodrich won the fiercely-contested GT300 race championship with Toyota.
BFGOODRICH AND THE RALLYE DU VALAIS. The same weekend as the Rally Japan will see the Rallye du Valais take place in Switzerland. Prior to the penultimate round of the 2007 Intercontinental Rally Challenge, Spain's Enrique Garcia Ojeda (Peugeot/BFGoodrich) tops the provisional Drivers' standings, seven points clear of Navarra and Vouilloz who are equal second.
BFGOODRICH IN DUBAI. The 2007 FIA Cross-Country Rally World Cup ends with the UAE Desert Challenge in Dubai (October 27-November 2) which the works Volkswagen/BFGoodrich, BMW/BFGoodrich and Mitsubishi/BFGoodrich teams will view as a full-scale dress rehearsal before next January's Dakar.