Solberg takes inaugural Rally Japan

Solberg takes inaugural Rally Japan

Petter Solberg claimed a comfortable victory on Rally Japan, keeping his World Rally Championship hopes alive, and giving a home-soil victory to the Subaru team. With the points leader Sebastien Loeb taking second, though, Solberg still remains 30...

Petter Solberg claimed a comfortable victory on Rally Japan, keeping his World Rally Championship hopes alive, and giving a home-soil victory to the Subaru team. With the points leader Sebastien Loeb taking second, though, Solberg still remains 30 points adrift with only five events left on the schedule.

Petter Solberg and Phil Mills.
Photo by Subaru World Rally Team.
"I'm so happy to have won here!" Solberg exclaimed after the podium ceremonies. "It's such a special event for Subaru that to come here and win in Japan on the first attempt is almost like a dream come true."

The 2004 Rally Japan was the first WRC event held on Japanese soil, and thus a potential source of enormous pride for the Japanese manufacturers involved in the championship, Subaru, Mitsubishi and Suzuki (the latter in the WRC Junior championship).

While there were early signs of potential -- local driver Jaginder Singh won the grueling 1974 Safari Rally in a Mitsubishi Lancer 1600 GSR -- the Japanese manufacturers' involvement started in earnest some 15 years ago, with the arrival of the Mitsubishi Galant VR4, the Subaru Legacy, the Toyota Celica GTFour and the Mazda 323 GT-R.

Harri Rovanpera and Risto Pietilainen.
Photo by Marlboro Peugeot Total.
With some of the European manufacturers, such as Audi and Lancia, leaving the series around the same timeframe, the commitment of the Japanese teams kept the series strong and vibrant -- but it took 30 years since that first Safari Rally victory before they would have a rally on their home soil.

"We've never had so much fan support on a rally, and it is a big honor for me to win on Subaru's home soil here in Japan," Solberg continued. "To the spectators who came to watch us out in the stages, I hope you had a good time watching us, it's been a fantastic rally and I hope we can win it again next year!"

In the end, Solberg's win was rather comfortable, with a margin of some 1:13 to the second-placed Loeb, and an 11-6 edge in stage victories over the 27 special stages.

Loeb has shown increasing versatility this year, as shown by the Citroen pilot's dominant WRC points lead, but on the tight gravel of Hokkaido, Japan's northern island, the Frenchman still appeared to be at a relative disadvantage.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
"I liked the stages despite the fact they are very narrow," Loeb explained. "What's difficult is to switch from the very slow pace on the recce to the fast one of the rally. It's a good event which could be improved if the time spent on road sections were reduced."

Markko Martin took third, 30 seconds back of Loeb, in his Ford Focus. The Estonian had a difficult first day, with co-driver Michael Park having to rewrite pace notes on the fly. With the corner speeds marked inconsistently, Martin had to drive conservatively, and he stood only fifth after the first leg.

"Certainly, the last day was much easier than the first and I'm frustrated that the notes were so bad to start with," Martin explaind at the conclusion of the rally. "But third is still a good result."

And indeed it is. While Solberg slips by Martin in the points standings with the victory, Martin is only a single point behind, and 31 points off Loeb's total, ready to pounce should the Citroen driver falter in the remaining rallies.

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen.
Photo by Marlboro Peugeot Total.
In fourth place was a disappointed Marcus Gronholm, who has had a difficult 2004 campaign with mechanical gremlins plaguing his Peugeot 307 WRC. This time it was the gearbox -- not for the first time this year -- as the Finn's car was at times stuck in third gear.

"It's been a difficult rally, where we just had to take as many points as possible," Gronholm reflected. "On the first day we were on the same pace as the leaders, but unfortunately we dropped back with a few problems on day two. The final leg was quite exciting for me as we had a big battle for fourth place. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could."

Gronholm had indeed held down second place, ahead of Loeb, on the second day, until his gearbox started acting up on SS13, losing him well over a minute on that stage alone. After that, it was all he could do to attack Carlos Sainz, in the second Citroen, for fourth place.

And as the cars finished the final stage, it was Gronholm in fourth and Sainz fifth, in the battle of the WRC veterans. Sainz was not able to match Gronholm's determination and pace on the final day, and finished 13.1 seconds behind his Peugeot rival.

The WRC tour now leaves behind the exotic locales of Japan, and moves to a much more traditional fixture: Rally of Great Britain, whose Welsh gravel stages, too, will be lined with spectators as Solberg and Martin attempt yet another assault on Loeb's championship lead.

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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Carlos Sainz , Harri Rovanpera , Marcus Gronholm , Petter Solberg , Sébastien Loeb , Timo Rautiainen , Michael Park , Daniel Elena , Risto Pietilainen , Markko Martin
Teams Citroën World Rally Team