Rally Japan: Round 11 preview

Pre-Event Shakedown News The world's best rally drivers took to the fast flowing gravel of Rally Japan for the first time today (2 September) when drove their world rally cars for a "shakedown". Peugeot's Harri Rovanpera was fastest through the...

Pre-Event Shakedown News

The world's best rally drivers took to the fast flowing gravel of Rally Japan for the first time today (2 September) when drove their world rally cars for a "shakedown". Peugeot's Harri Rovanpera was fastest through the 5.4 kilometer shakedown stage.

His team mate, Marcus Gronholm, was the third fastest driver and while many of their competitors were not driving at ten-tenths, the shakedown times could hint at things to come from the Peugeot team. While just earlier this week, Peugeot Sport Team Director Corrado Provera said that the Peugeot drivers should drive the Rally Japan flat out and aim for victory. "Given that our situation in both championships is now compromised, our intention is to finish the year with panache," said Provera.

Carlos Sainz was third fastest on the stage. The Spaniard has a reputation for strong finishes on new events, having won in Turkey 2003 and taken third in Mexico this year -- both times when the events were run for the first time.

Sainz's team mate and current World Rally Championship points leader Sebastien Loeb is the only leading driver to know a little of these stages, as he drove the reconnaissance of the 2003 version of this rally. There have been many changes to the route since then, and Citroen fans will have to wait to see if last year's visit will pay off .

The action starts tomorrow, and sees the rally cars heading to the north east of Obihiro for 150.58 competitive kilometers of special stages before returning to the city for both a spectacular twin-track special stage and servicing.

Rally Japan Preview

The next round of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship starts on 3 September when crews move to the Far East to contest the eleventh event of the series, Rally Japan. Based in the country's northernmost island of Hokkaido, the rally will be a significant one for Subaru as it competes in a WRC event on home ground for the first time.

First run in 2001 as the Hokkaido Rally, for the last two years the event has been included in the FIA Asia-Pacific Championship. Following the inaugural Corona WRC Rally Mexico in March, Japan will become the second event to make its World Rally Championship debut in 2004. The third, Rally Italia Sardinia, occurs in October.

With FIA regulations preventing teams from testing outside Europe, the event's narrow gravel stages run in the Tokachi region remain unfamiliar for almost all the FIA WRC competitors. Presenting crews with a series of twisty, smooth, loose-gravel roads, which are fast and flowing in places, the stages run through some deeply forested areas. Weather conditions are expected to be wet and unpredictable, making tyre choice a difficult factor.

The rally is based in the city of Obihiro, in the Tokachi region of Hokkaido, with a central service park at Kita Aikoku a few kilometres to the south. However, all the speed tests, except for the Satsunai super special stage, are located north of Obihiro. After a city centre ceremonial start on Thursday evening, Friday's opening leg is the longest of the event. It comprises two identical anti-clockwise loops north of the town of Rikubetsu, 100km from Obihiro. The second leg follows an identical format with two clockwise loops over roads slightly further south. Both legs end with the Satsunai super special stage on the edge of Obihiro. The final day, the shortest of the rally, comprises two identical loops north-west of Obihiro, split by a third and final pass over the Satsunai test. Drivers face 387.50km of competition over 27 stages in a total route of 1677.43km.


Six months after Mexico, it's the turn of Japan to join the family of FIA World Ral Championship organising countries. Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Ma Marti will be in the land of the rising sun with their respective Xsara WRCs to discover th event which is based in Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main islands that make u the Japanese archipelago. The presence of a WRC round in Japan is a long-awaited moment. A number o manufacturers from this major car-producing nation have either been involved, are current involved or plan to be involved in world class rallying, and Citroën is delighted to have th opportunity to compete on their home ground.

Sebastien Loeb / Daniel Elena: "To begin with, I have to say that what we saw last year does not necessarily reflect what we will find this time round since lots of stages are new. What won't change is the scenery. The region isn't particularly hilly and the forest roads are rather narrow and fast, with plenty of 4th-gear corners and long straights. Last year, there was also a very slow, twisty part which should be dropped. The surface seems quite soft and is likely to rut, especially since it rained enormously during the 2003 event. The undulating scenery is not disorientating. It's more the day to day life -- the road signs, what's on your plate -- that is less familiar--"

Carlos Sainz / Marc Marti: "To say that I know Japan would be a lie! I have only been to Tokyo a couple of times for promotional work when I used to drive for Japanese teams. It's an interesting country, and very different to Europe as far as traditions, lifestyle-- and food are concerned! There's always something instructive, exciting even, when as a driver you discover a new event because it's a step into the unknown. The gravel stages are apparently very narrow but, apart from that, nobody really knows what to expect. The most important thing is the way the event is organised. Generally, organisers do all they can to ensure teams and crews are warmly welcomed. Knowing the Japanese mentality a little bit and their desire to do things well, I think we can expect a high standard."


The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two cars in Japan. They will be driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Mikko Hirvonen (co-driven by Jarmo Lehtinen). In common with the majority of WRC drivers, Petter and Mikko will be drawing on their knowledge of other loose-gravel events, such as New Zealand and Finland, as they make their Rally Japan debuts next week.

Petter Solberg / Phil Mills: Even a week after the accident in Germany it still feels incredible to have come through without a scratch. I know why the accident happened, and this is a different event, but my feeling ahead of this rally is that I'm not going to be pushing like crazy straight away. It's a new event, and I think it will suit the car and my driving style, but to begin with I'll be focusing on building the speed smoothly and building up my confidence too. To be representing Subaru in Japan makes it an especially important rally for our team and Phil and I are going to be doing everything we can to get the best result in front of the home fans.

Mikko Hirvonen / Jarmo Lehtinen: Looking back to Germany, it was good that I finished and got some points for the team, but it wasn't the result I was hoping for. It was my first event on wet tarmac with the Impreza and Pirelli tyres and I definitely got some good experience behind the wheel. I learnt a lot and set some good stage times, but I was not so happy with my finishing position. Eighth is okay, but not enough and I need to do more. I've seen some video footage of the Japanese stages and they look quite slippery and wet, but I think that will suit us. There's rain expected this year, but it should be good fun and I'm hoping for a good result. It's special to be competing for Subaru at its home event for the first time and I hope to do well.


BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Markko Martin and Francois Duval will hope that history repeats itself when the Rally Japan makes its debut in the FIA World Rally Championship next week. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars finished first and second in March on the Rally Mexico's introduction to the series and a repeat result in the Land of the Rising Sun would provide a perfect boost to the team's title challenge.

BP-Ford World Rally Team co-driver Stephane Prevot has withdrawn from the Rally Japan following a family bereavement. His position as co-driver for Francois Duval will be taken by Philippe Droeven. Thirty-five-year-old Prevot had already arrived in Obihiro to begin preparations for this 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship but left to return home to Belgium last night. Forty-two-year-old Droeven, from Belgium, is an experienced co-driver who partnered Duval for three events during the early part of his career. He co-drove for fellow countryman Dominique Bruyneel on many European Championship events between 1998 and 2002. This year he is competing in the French Championship with Emmanuel Guigou. This will be Droeven's third world rally. He partnered Larry Cols on the 1998 Monte Carlo Rally and Bruyneel on the Catalunya Rally in 2000, retiring on both occasions.

Markko Martin / Michael Park: Martin heads a group of five drivers covered by just eight points. "In championship terms the battle for second place is currently very tight," said the 28-year-old Estonian. "But from my point of view I want to be fighting for first not second place so I have to start closing the gap on leader Sebastien Loeb. The championship is now at the point where each event must be considered on its own merits. This rally and the next event in Great Britain are both gravel rallies and if I am to have any chance of winning the title I need to close in on Sebastien on these two rallies. I cannot really say anything about Rally Japan because I know little. I enjoy tackling new rallies and if we come back from Japan with the same kind of result that we achieved in Mexico then I will be delighted. As with any new event it will be important to ensure the pace notes are accurate. With just two practice runs through the stages, there will be little opportunity to correct mistakes and this is one area on which we must work hard during the recce," he added.

Francios Duval / Philippe Droeven: "New rallies coming into the championship, like Japan, give me an advantage," said Duval. "On most events I have less experience and less knowledge of the stages than the other drivers. But all the top drivers will start this rally with no previous competitive experience there and that makes it more equal. I think it's possible for me to finish inside the top five. But it's important for me to make sure I drive all the stages and learn them for the future. So if I'm lying in fifth or sixth then I would not risk everything to try to climb to third or fourth. I don't know what the conditions will be like but I believe that some of the roads are narrow. The stages are not too long which is good for me. I will try to settle into a steady rhythm and see what happens. Because there are fewer manufacturer entries than on previous events, it will only take two or three retirements to ensure a good points finish and that's my aim," he added.


Peugeot 307 WRC drivers Marcus Gronholm and Harri Rovanpera go to the event with the firm intention of being the first winners of the WRC newcomer! "Given that our situation in both championships is now compromised, our intention is to finish the year with panache," indicates Peugeot Sport Director Corrado Provera. The mission for the team's two Finnish drivers couldn't any clearer therefore: victory. In the Drivers' championship, Marcus Gronholm counts 42 points to his name and still figures in the leading pack. Currently classified in 5th position, he is 5 points adrift of Markko Martin, 4 points behind Carlos Sainz and 2 points down on Petter Solberg. So there is still everything to play for between these four adversaries, while Sebastien Loeb has carved out a significant gap at the top of the provisional standings.

Marcus Gronholm / Timo Rautiainen: the rally will be a new event for everyone, which makes predictions very difficult. The stages, which are run on what is described as reasonably smooth gravel, are varied while grip is expected to be at a premium, and they have been compared with those of Finland or Scotland, two events in which Marcus Gronholm has traditionally gone well. Having given the Peugeot 307 WRC its first win on home soil at the beginning of August, the two-times World Champion has but one objective: to score further victories. Will the next one come in Japan?

Harri Rovanpera / Risto Pietilainen : "I'm convinced Japan is a great chance for us to win again. The team has put in a fantastic job this year to make the 307 WRC a superb car," he affirms. "OK, this is a new event, so we have no data of our own for the set-up, but the 307 has already shown that it is particularly effective on the loose. People in the sport often suggest that the Finns, the Brits and the French perform better in their home events which they know by heart. I don't necessarily agree with that view. But this rally will in any case be new for everyone, so we will all be on an equal footing. It's going to be very interesting to see who comes out on top," concludes the Finn.


Mitsubishi announced earlier this year that they will not be competiting as a registered manufacturer team from Japan on. They are not entered in the rally. _

Weather Forecast
Weather conditions are expected to be wet and unpredictable, making tyre choice a difficult factor.


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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team