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)...
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.
Following last night's ceremonial start in Obihiro, which was attended by tens of thousands of spectators, 84 competitors started the event at 0530hrs
Leg one comprised 150.58 competitive kilometres and nine stages (two groups of four, followed by a lap of a Super Special stage at Satsaui). Stages were located north east of the service park at Kita Aikoku
Overcast skies cleared and became bright and sunny by mid-morning. Temperatures started at 15°C degrees, rising to 25°C by mid-afternoon. Stages were mostly dry loose gravel, with some damp patches in the morning
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.
Second overall tonight, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena perfectly negotiated the Rally Japan's first leg, a day which is usually unfavourable to the Championship leader starting first on the road and acting as a sweeper. Carlos Sainz and Marc Marti lie in a comfortable fifth place.
Sébastien Loeb / Daniel Elena: During the first loop, "Seb' the sweeper" was surprised to realise his position on the road was not penalising him too much, surely thanks to the previous days' rain. The young Frenchman even set a promising fastest time on that opening sequence of tests. "It was correct to choose soft tyres and the balance of the car was very good. I could stay in the tracks we've done when we recceed before the start and it helped."
Carlos Sainz / Marc Marti:Having selected a harder compound for the afternoon loop, Seb' confirmed he was at ease with his Xsara on this new playground and he won three stages. However he cleared the third test "Niueo", with three punctured tyres ! Thanks to the efficiency of the Michelin ATS system, he could compete normally in Rikubetsu and after the road section, in the super stage of Satsunai, located in the suburbs of Obihiro. "Good day," Seb said smiling. "We are in the pace of the fastest cars and I believe we can do well. I think tyre choice will be the key point for tomorrow."
At the end of the first Leg of competition, Petter Solberg holds the overnight lead of Subaru's home event, the WRC Rally Japan. Dominating the rally from the outset, the Norwegian scored four stage wins aboard his Subaru Impreza WRC2004 and held position at the top of the leaderboard throughout the day. His 24-year-old team-mate Mikko Hirvonen grew in confidence throughout the Leg and holds overnight seventh place, well positioned ahead of tomorrow's action.
Petter Solberg / Phil Mills: "It's been a tough day but things have gone really well, better than I expected in fact, and I'm very happy. The car has been perfect, no problems at all. Perhaps I took a little bit of a wrong tyre choice for those last stages, but I can't complain. I'm just really pleased that my confidence in driving is back to normal and we've got a good chance for this rally. Of course there's still a long, long way to go, and Sebastien is doing well as always, but I'll be giving it my best shot tomorrow."
Mikko Hirvonen / Jarmo Lehtinen: "Well, it's not been such a bad day, but I wasn't very happy with my driving on the first couple of stages. Things improved a lot in the afternoon, but after the small spin on SS1 it took a while to get into a comfortable rhythm with the pace notes on these stages. You have to be extremely neat through the trees and so you have to be really confident in your notes. But things definitely improved later in the day so I'm hoping to carry that form into tomorrow."
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.
Markko Martin / Michael Park: 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."
Francios Duval / Philippe Droeven: 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."
Peugeot driver Marcus Gronholm is in third place after the opening leg of the inaugural Rally Japan, just 17.8 seconds behind the leader. His team mate Harri Rovanpera ends the day eighth, after suffering gearbox problems. Marcus got off to a good start this morning, setting some competitive stage times over the unfamiliar territory. His Peugeot 307 WRC was entirely reliable throughout the day, but he dropped from second to third after losing confidence in the brakes during the final loop of stages. Harri dropped time after losing fourth gear during the opening kilometres of SS1. The Finn nursed the car through the four stages before service, where the problem was fixed. Unfortunately, the problem occurred again during the afternoon, losing Harri even more time.
Marcus Gronhölm / Timo Rautiainen: "So far it's been very good," said Marcus. "I like the stages here: they are quite fast and you need to attack. Unfortunately I had a soft brake pedal that meant that I couldn't push as hard as I wanted. Nonetheless, I think I have found a good rhythm with the car and the event now. We're looking competitive, and my plan is to build on that tomorrow."
Harri Rovanpera / Risto Pietiläinen : "It was a shame about the gearbox problem, because without that we could have been right up there," commented Harri. "There is a big gap between third and fifth gear, so I was having to drive really carefully. We've been desperately unlucky to drop so much time so soon but we still have a long way to go so I'm not giving up yet!"
Weather conditions are expected to be wet and unpredictable, making tyre choice a difficult factor.