Apart from Gronholm, Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) was the only other driver to claim fastest times. The Frenchman won four stages. Behind Hirvonen, Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) holds fourth, the Austrian acclimatising quickly on his first visit to Japan.
Apart from Gronholm, Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) was the only other driver to claim fastest times. The Frenchman won four stages. Behind Hirvonen, Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) holds fourth, the Austrian acclimatising quickly on his first visit to Japan. Dani Sordo (Citroen) is also making his debut here. He erred on the side of caution but dropped 20sec after stalling in stage four before edging ahead of Chris Atkinson (Subaru) on the penultimate stage. Atkinson incurred a 50sec penalty when the team had problems fitting a suspension component in the midday service. Petter Solberg (Subaru) held an early third but dropped two minutes in stage four due to brake pad problems. He is eighth.
Variable conditions all day. A bright start, overcast later with some light rain showers. Stages remained damp and muddy in places. Temperatures ranged between 16C and 22C.
Leg two starts from the Obihiro park ferme at 0600hrs on Friday. Crews will tackle nine stages in the countryside north-east of the host city before returning for two more circuits of the spectator Superspecial stage.
Kronos Total Citroen
Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena versus Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen : this is undoubtedly the match of the season and once more it is living up to all expectations. At the end of leg one of the Rally Japan -- the 11th encounter between the two rivals this year -- Loeb is keeping Gronholm in his sights, by holding the runner-up spot 11.5 seconds behind the Finn. After a day of learning the narrow and damp roads of Hokkaido, a concentrated Dani Sordo ends the leg in fifth place.
Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena: "I swept away the loose gravel in Pawse Kamuy , made a few small mistakes in Rikubetsu, then I had a good feeling in Kanna. But in Puray the feeling was not so good, as the grip level was constantly changing--" The second loop of stages was a carbon copy of the first and Seb limited the time loss to Gronholm to just 2.2 seconds, having once more set fastest time in Kanna. Nonetheless, the reigning World Champion stalled on the slowest hairpin in Puray, and later asked the service crew to check the function of his semi-automatic gearbox command. "I've got a problem with Pawse Kamuy, " reflected Seb during final service. "For three years now I've never quite got to grips with that stage. That's where Marcus built up the bulk of his advantage. I was quicker in Kanna and he was in Puray : that's what a fight is all about ! I'm sure it will be very exciting again tomorrow-- "
Daniel Sordo/Marc Marti: "In the afternoon the stages were cleaner and less damp. As it was my second run through them at speed, I felt happier and more confident. My times got better and so I made up two places-- Tomorrow, I'm going to stick with the same tactics. I will get to know the stages carefully, try to improve during the second run, and above all I want to avoid mistakes. My main aim on this rally is first and foremost to score as many manufacturer points as I can for Kronos. "
The OMV Peugeot Norway World Rally Team passed the first day of the "Rally Japan" with flying colours. Manfred Stohl and Ilka Minor rejoiced over fourth intermediate place at the end of the leg. A top performance that was made possible by faultlessly completing the special stages for there were no retirements at the top so far. Even Petter Solberg (Nor/Subaru), winner in Japan in 2004, or WRC shooting star and Citroen works driver Daniel Sordo (Spa), currently third in the WRC, are no match for the OMV duo.
Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor: : "Maybe we were a little bit too cautious in several passages. But now we know that we can go faster and will be able to attack on the second turn." Said, done. The weather didn't improve -- but Stohl did. Thus he was able to break away from Petter Solberg, Daniel Sordo or Subaru-works driver Chris Atkinson (Aus). Stohl: "I am especially happy that we are in front of Atkinson. He is very fast here in Japan and even had the lead last year after three special stages. Now it is important to defend fourth place during the next two days. And I'm sure that we can go even faster in the course of the rally."
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen lead Rally Japan after controling today's opening leg. The Finns powered their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to the front from the opening kilometre this morning and were never headed as they won six of the gravel speed tests, building a 10.5sec advantage. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen hold a comfortable third in a similar Focus RS after setting a consistently quick pace.
Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen: "After our win in Finland on the last rally, I felt confident here before the start," said 38-year-old Gronholm. "It has been a good battle with Loeb today but I must admit I was hoping my lead would be bigger tonight. It's obviously going to be a hard fight and I need to stretch my advantage tomorrow because the gap at the moment isn't big enough. One small mistake could be costly. "We made a good tyre choice. The roads were extremely muddy and slippery this morning and the conditions became worse with the passage of every car. I've not tested in that weather but everything was OK and it was drier this afternoon. Loeb beat me twice on the same stage and I remember losing time there last year. Maybe I need to have a closer look at my pace notes next year," he added.
Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen: "About 3km after the start I hit a concrete post on a bridge on a fifth gear right bend," he explained. The impact bent a rear wheel and I lost my confidence. I dropped a few seconds over the remaining kilometres, especially in the slow corners, and if I back off even a tiny bit then Marcus and Seb move ahead. "I had good grip all morning in the mud but sometimes the odd corner was like ice and then the car just slid wide. It was better this afternoon but the roads cut up badly and it was like driving on a railway track in places because the ruts were so deep. I can't catch Marcus and Seb and I need to be a bit braver to match their pace. It is the same situation as it was in Finland a fortnight ago and I'm just going to follow it and drive so as not to make mistakes," he added.
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford
The Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team has completed its first day of rallying with its new Ford Focus RS WRC06 rally cars with drivers Matthew Wilson and Luis Perez Companc ending the day strongly in the top ten of Rally Japan, the eleventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship. As a change from the previous ten rounds of the championship, the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team used the latest generation Ford Focus RS rally car for this event. Compared to the previous version there were significant differences for the two crews to learn as they tackled the first day and 124 km of competitive distance of the event spread over ten stages based out of the city of Obihiro in Japan. The latest car has a five speed gearbox as opposed to the older car's six. The front and rear differentials are passive as opposed to active on the earlier version and the car is both wider and longer. A different centre of gravity allied to different suspension means all new set-ups have to be learnt by the team as the event progresses.
Matthew Wilson/Michael Orr: "It was alright to start the rally like that. There's not a lot to report except that I've got a sore back as we've covered over 600 km today. The first stage was very nice but the third and fourth ones were really difficult as they're so narrow but they're really fast in places. The biggest challenge is getting used to the car. The engine has different torque characteristics and there are five gears instead of six. It takes time to know which gear you should go through the corner in. You have to drive it differently from the last one but it's going alright. You really have to concentrate, and the fact the stages are narrow and tricky makes it difficult. Our pacenotes are not where we need them to be but that's something that everyone says in their first time in Japan. Because you can't see what's around the corner the notes have to be exactly right, especially on the long corners, and it takes time to get that. It has been a very good day. We've had a clean run with no major problems. I need to get my seating position changed, but that's the only thing we need to do at the end of the day."
Luis Perez Companc/Jose Maria Volta: "A new car and a new rally. In the fourth stage I went off two times, just doing a bit of grass cutting, but luckily there was nothing wrong there. I did spin at a hairpin and the engine shut off, but I restarted it without problem. It has been a long day and we had problems with the intercom on the second loop, it's not easy if you can't hear the pacenotes. I was more confident when the stages were drier in the afternoon. Other than that it's been fine, the car is wonderful, I'm very happy as it's a tough event, it's an incredible car."
At the end of a difficult first day of competition in Japan Chris Atkinson holds sixth place overall and leads the three car Subaru World Rally Team entry. The day started well for Subaru, with Petter Solberg jostling for a top-three position, but a brake problem on the fourth stage cost him almost two minutes and dropped him down to tenth overall. It was a similar story for Atkinson; he started well, but dropped down the order -- in his case after collecting 50 seconds of penalty time for leaving service late. On his first outing in a WRC car since 2001, much of Toshi Arai's day was spent familiarising himself with the latest Impreza model. In front of his home crowd he set consistent top-ten times and holds seventh place overnight.
Petter Solberg/Phil Mills: "We are trying very hard and everybody is absolutely doing their best, but we still need to do more. We had some more problems this afternoon and we know why, so we'll look at the problem with the car and see what we can do for tomorrow. It's certainly tough, but then it's tough for the entire team and that's how it is at the moment."
Chris Atkinson/Glen MacNeall: "Today's been a challenging day in some quite difficult conditions. We had a couple of small problems which we'll fix and then get on with it again. The aim is to keep going, have a trouble-free day tomorrow, and try hard. I'm sure we can make up some positions."
Toshi Arai/Toni Sircombe: "The first bit of today was not so bad but the second half I lost a lot of time and then had to slow right down in the Superspecial with a clutch problem. The first stages were quite good I think, so tomorrow I will try and drive at the same speed as I am still learning the car."