Rally Japan: Ford leg one summary

Märtin and Duval take note of tough opener in Japan BP-Ford World Rally Team ended today's ground-breaking opening leg of Rally Japan with its Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars in fourth and sixth places. Markko Märtin and Michael Park are...

Märtin and Duval take note of tough opener in Japan

BP-Ford World Rally Team ended today's ground-breaking opening leg of Rally Japan with its Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars in fourth and sixth places. Markko Märtin and Michael Park are fourth after the FIA World Rally Championship's first ever day of competition in the Land of the Rising Sun, with team-mates François Duval and Philippe Droeven two positions behind.

The opening day of this 11th round of the championship has been frustrating for both pairings. Their pace notes proved inconsistent during the morning's gravel speed tests in the forests of the Tokachi region, on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido. And while Duval needed time to settle into his partnership with stand-in co-driver Droeven, Märtin was unhappy this afternoon after changes to his car's set-up affected the handling.

Crowds estimated at more than 50,000 packed the centre of Obihiro last night to witness Japan's entrance into the championship. Eighty-four competitors received a tumultuous reception as they crossed the start podium, accompanied by the sound of Japanese drums, fireworks and lasers.

The action moved 100km north-east this morning as the competition began under warm sunshine, and generally clear blue skies, with two identical groups of four speed tests in an anti-clockwise loop around the small town of Rikubetsu. The day ended with a super special stage on the edge of Obihiro, during which two cars at a time raced around a purpose-built track. It all totalled 150.58km of action.

None of the leading drivers have competed here before so the narrow, but fast, roads were sure to provide an interesting beginning to the three days of competition. So it proved for Märtin and Park, who settled into fourth in their Castrol-branded Focus RS, despite struggling to get to grips with their notes.

"Our pace notes were horrible and Beef (Michael Park) spent 50 per cent of the time calling the notes and the other 50 percent writing changes," said the 28-year-old Estonian driver. "As an example, on the third stage we had a fifth gear corner in the notes and it was no more than third gear. That was scary and I eased off after that. We weren't confident of what lay on the inside and the outside of bends so it was hard to slide the car or make cuts."

Märtin made changes to the shock absorber settings at the midday service park because he felt the car was rolling too much, but was unhappy with what he had done. However, he retained fourth, ending 5.1sec ahead of fifth-placed Carlos Sainz. "We tried new settings but unfortunately we went in the wrong direction," he said. "It made the first stage of the afternoon quite difficult, but we changed the settings back again ourselves and the rest weren't so bad. Our notes were much better the second time through the stages but something has been missing today and I'm not sure what. We need to find more speed tomorrow."

Team-mates Duval and Droeven knew they faced a tough day. Droeven is a last-minute replacement for Stéphane Prévot, who returned to Belgium following a family bereavement. Naturally the new pairing needed time to settle in but they, too, had pace note difficulties. Despite that they moved into sixth and retained the position throughout the day.

"My notes were too optimistic," said Duval. "If I had maintained the same speed as I drove for the first two stages then I would have gone off the road. It was too risky so I slowed down. I had a big incident on the first corner of the first stage. I didn't know what was going to happen but it was definitely 'a hello airport moment'!"

"But overall it was quite a good day for us, I think," he said. "The pace notes were much better this afternoon although we've had a little bit of understeer all day. I don't really like the roads because they are very narrow. A combination of that and the notes meant that I didn't feel so confident. I drove at 90 per cent because it would have been too dangerous to go any faster."

Duval's only problem this afternoon came when he hit a stone and bent a wheel rim on stage seven. It brought on a severe vibration so the Belgian changed the wheel before the next test.

News from our Rivals

Petter Solberg (Subaru) bounced back from his huge accident in Germany two weeks ago to lead the opening leg from start to finish. The Norwegian was fastest on three of the morning's four stages to open a 20 second lead. Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) and Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) had a huge fight for second, swapping places after each of the first five stages. But three fastest times enabled the championship leader to edge out the Finn and close on Solberg. Carlos Sainz (Citroen) struggled with tyre wear problems after altering the set-up of his car this morning and, although he briefly moved ahead of Märtin this afternoon, he could not stay there. Mikko Hirvonen (Subaru) filled his car's radiator with mud during a first stage spin which sent the engine temperature up to 130°C but he was untroubled in seventh for the rest of the day. The only top driver to hit trouble was Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot). The Finn lost fourth gear in the first few kilometres of the opening stage and had to wait another three stages for a new gearbox to be fitted. But exactly the same happened again after a few kilometres of the fifth stage and he dropped nearly two minutes.

Tomorrow's Route

The second leg is again based around the small town of Rikubetsu but uses roads slightly further south. After another 05.30 start from Obihiro, drivers complete two identical clockwise loops before a second pass over the Satsunai super special stage on the edge of the city. The 11 tests comprise 124.98km and drivers return to Obihiro for the final overnight halt at 20.16.


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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team