Rally Japan: Round 11 preview

The FIA World Rally Championship heads to the Far East for the eleventh of the 16-round series. Rally Japan, the Subaru World Rally Team's home event, is based in the city of Obihiro on Hokkaido, the most northerly of Japan's islands, and takes ...

The FIA World Rally Championship heads to the Far East for the eleventh of the 16-round series. Rally Japan, the Subaru World Rally Team's home event, is based in the city of Obihiro on Hokkaido, the most northerly of Japan's islands, and takes place from 1 to 3 September. As the only round of the WRC to take place in Asia, Rally Japan usually attracts hundreds of thousands of fans from all over the continent. Last year over 200,000 people attended the three days of competition, while the ceremonial start alone drew 52,000 spectators.

Rally Japan is a highly technical event with narrow, loose gravel stages which run through dense woodland on the edge of the vast Tokachi plain that stretches inland from the Pacific Ocean. Each Leg will be a grueling test for crews with up to 10 stages per day, ranging from short, twisty 3km sprints to fast, flowing roads more than 34km long. With stages separated by long liaison sections, drivers can be on the road for over 12 hours a day.

Changeable weather is as much a feature of Rally Japan as the long days. Although Obihiro is protected by two mountain ranges, it lies in the path of Pacific weather systems which bring high winds and torrential rain to the island. This year's rally takes place in the height of the typhoon season and it's highly likely that heavy showers will fall each day, leaving the soft ground saturated with water. With some stages used four times, the roads will become heavily rutted as more cars drive through.

This year, the route features 27 stages, one more than in 2005. Changes for this year include a new Superspecial on the edge of the service park that will be used five times during the rally and once as the shakedown stage, while the mammoth 50km Kunneywa-Niueo stage has been broken into three shorter stages. After a ceremonial start in central Obihiro on Thursday night, the first competitive stage of the rally begins at 0803hrs on Friday 1 September. The podium finish is scheduled for 1500hrs at the Kita Aikoku service park six kilometres south of Obihiro.

Kronos Total Citroen

To tackle the third edition of the Rally Japan, the Kronos Total Citroen WRT, currently leading the Manufacturers' championship, enters two 2006 Xsara WRCs. They will be driven by two-times World Champions Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, clear leaders of the 'Drivers' rankings, and by the Junior World rally champion Dani Sordo, as usually co-driven by Marc Marti. As championship's leaders, Seb and Daniel will start first on the road on day one, facing the road sweeping in the morning. They hope this task won't turn into 'heavy road-works' as it was the case last year in some sections covered in a rocky layer. But they also hope they could still be in position to get in the fight for a win after that. However, their comfortable lead in the championship allows them to choose in between the Bushido -- the warrior path -- and the Go Game, all about tactics. In the 'challengers match', such important for the Manufacturers' Championship, Dani Sordo discovers the event and has two less participations than Mikko Hirvonen. However, this does not bother the Junior World champion as he is decided to concentrate on learning the terrain and find the right pace to reach the finish with the maximum number of points for the Kronos Total Citroen World Rally Team--

Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena: "It's not my favourite but there are nice things though. I like feeling 'disorientated' and there aren't places above Japan for that. The enthusiasm of the crowd when they shake little flags is both amusing and nice. Some stages are interesting even if their narrow character stops from choosing a line. Last year, some of speed-tests situated on the long road section in between Obihiro and Rikubetsu, had too soft grounds which became rutted too quickly. All the drivers have talked about it at the finish. I hope this year's route will be modified in that direction."

Daniel Sordo/Marc Marti: Quote not available.

OMV-Peugeot Norway

The OMV Peugeot Norway World Rally Team is primed for the next assignment. Following two rallies in Europe the WRC goes overseas once again for the "Rally Japan". With Manfred Stohl and Ilka Minor, the OMV Peugeot Norway World Rally Team will only be represented by one car in the land of the rising sun. Which means that the hunt is only on for driver points at the eleventh run to the FIA World Rally Championship. At the remaining five rallies the OMV Peugeot Norway World Rally Team will once again be competing with two cars. On Tuesday Manfred Stohl will be facing one of his last big adventures in the Rally World Championship. Following 104 starts in the royal class of this sport the 34-year-old OMV driver will compete in an event for the first time -- the Rally Japan.

Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor: "I've been there several times and especially enjoy the food in Japan but I've never competed in a rally. It is bound to be a great experience. I'm sure that we won't have any problems since I am usually good at adapting to new rallies. And the Rally Japan should also suit the Peugeot 307 WRC. After all, Marcus Gronholm won last year with this car."


Victory in Finland earlier this month for Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen's Ford Focus RS World Rally Car was the squad's fourth in 10 rounds. It also ensured that with six rounds still remaining, Ford is enjoying its most successful championship season since 1993. Both Gronholm and Rautiainen and BP-Ford team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen have competed on both previous Rally Japan WRC events. Gronholm, who lies second in the drivers' championship, won last year and was fourth in 2004. Japan marks 26-year-old Hirvonen's 50th WRC start. "If I had to pick any highlights from the first 49 rallies, I would choose two," he said. "The first would be in Spain last year when I finished third in a Focus as a private entrant. The second would be Finland last week. That was also very special.

Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen: I'm excited about all these last six gravel events," said 38-year-old Gronholm. "I will start each of those believing I can win. I had absolutely no problems with the car in Finland and that's really encouraging. If a driver is happy about the reliability of his car it makes a big difference to his confidence and his general approach to an event."The stages in Japan are mostly narrow, but still fast, and there isn't much room to choose your line. They remind me of the stages in Britain and some are even like Finland, but without the big crests and jumps. If I can be as fast in Japan as I was in Finland then I will be quite happy! It's important to take care coming out of the corners. The ditches are close to the road and there are usually bushes and leaves covering them so you can't really see them properly. Some are quite deep and it's quite easy to drop the car into one just because you can't see it," he added.

Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen: "I quite enjoy Japan. In fact Finland was a good shakedown for next weekend because the stages in both countries are fast and I'm already in the right attitude. We're not allowed to test outside Europe before events but the stages are not so different to Finland so the set-up of the car will be pretty much the same. "The narrow roads are the main feature. But they are changing. Even last year, when it was only the rally's second time in the championship, the roads were a little wider. People were braver in cutting corners and when that happens the bends change in character and eventually become more open," added Hirvonen.

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford

Rally Japan, the eleventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship, will be a momentous occasion for the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally as it debuts its brand-new Ford Focus RS WRC06 cars, driven by Matthew Wilson and Luis Perez Companc. After ten WRC events this year using the familiar older-style Ford Focus RS WRC05, the Stobart team takes its next step forward with the move to the 2006 generation Ford Focus RS WRC06, based on the latest Ford Focus road car and the same car that has been used by the BP Ford World Rally Team since late last season. It is the early debut of the '06 generation car by the BP Ford World Rally Team, run by the same M-Sport operation which run the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team, which enables the squad to become the first-ever team other than the Manufacturer One operation to use a Focus RS WRC06.

Matthew Wilson/Michael Orr: "It's not an event I've done before and I've only driven the new Focus very briefly so it's going to be interesting. Michael's done the rally before so I'll be relying on him a lot. Getting to drive the 2006 Focus is probably something I've been looking forward to more than anything else this year so it will be really good to finally be in the car. In Finland it was good to get a top ten result and we're just going to have the same approach as every rally this year and go out and learn the event.

Luis Perez Companc/Jose Maria Volta: "I have not done Rally Japan before so it will be very interesting to see the event. It will be my first rally in the new Focus and I am very much looking forward to that. Everyone has told me it is a very narrow rally, very fast, but with not much room for error. This will make it a very difficult rally and I don't really know what to expect.

555 Subaru

The Subaru World Rally Team will enter one Impreza WRC2006 for Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and one car for Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn Macneall). Toshi Arai (co-driven by Tony Sircombe) will also drive an Impreza WRC2006. Petter Solberg makes his third Rally Japan appearance this year. Petter won the inaugural WRC event in 2004, however his 2005 rally came to a premature end when, with a 22secs lead, he hit a rock on the penultimate stage of the rally. Chris Atkinson first contested the rally in 2003 when it formed part of the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship. The Australian has an excellent record in Japan; in 2004 he won the Super 1600 class and in 2005 he achieved his highest-ever WRC finish when he secured third position. The result was the first time an Australian had finished on a WRC podium since 1992. Toshi Arai competes in his home rally for the fourth time this year. Like Chris, the Japanese driver has an excellent record on the rally; at the wheel of a Group N specification Subaru Impreza, he has won his class every year he's entered.

Petter Solberg/Phil Mills: "I enjoy Rally Japan a lot, it's always been a good rally for us, but this year I don't want to make any predictions. Let's start, get into a rhythm and go from there -- we need a good finish. Ideally it would be on the podium -- if we're lucky and everything on the car works okay, we should be more than capable of doing this. It would be a great result for all of the fans there; it's definitely a boost for a driver to have that kind of incredible support."

Chris Atkinson/Glen MacNeall: Rally Japan is Subaru's home event so it's a big rally for the team. We did well there last year, and I enjoy the narrow, fast, tricky roads, but it could be difficult to get that result again. We've made some steps forward with the car, now it's all about getting to the stage where we're consistently on the pace. We shouldn't underestimate the task we've got in front of us but, all the same, we'll be doing our best to get a good result for the Subaru supporters."

Toshi Arai/Toni Sircombe: "I'm very excited about competing in Rally Japan with the Subaru World Rally Team. I know the team well -- there are still the same faces, although some of them have moved up a level since I was last here! There's quite a lot of pressure as it's my home rally and my first time in a WRC car since 2001, so the goal for me will be to get a good finish. Realistically we'll be aiming for a top five position, but if we get there and one of the top three has a problem, you never know, we could be on the podium."

-credit: rallye-newsletter.com

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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Marcus Gronholm , Petter Solberg , Sébastien Loeb , Timo Rautiainen , Tony Sircombe , Manfred Stohl , Daniel Elena , Mikko Hirvonen , Marc Marti , Jarmo Lehtinen , Ilka Minor , Matthew Wilson , Dani Sordo , Michael Orr , Chris Atkinson , Jose Maria Volta
Teams Citroën World Rally Team , M-Sport