31 Oct 08
Mikko Hirvonen leads Rally Japan at the end of a shortened day of competition in Sapporo which was punctuated by one stopped and three cancelled stages.
Only four of the planned eight countryside tests ran completely as scheduled, the others were cancelled or shortened as a result of snowy weather (SS3/SS7), a crash involving Stobart driver Francois Duval (SS6) and disruption following the incident (SS8).
On the stages which did run BP Ford team driver Hirvonen was in dominant form and didn’t put a foot wrong all day. He took the rally lead on the first test and went on to win six of the seven stages he started. He will begin Saturday’s competition with a lead of 26.2sec over his team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala in second.
“We haven’t driven so much today so the lead we have is quite good,” said Hirvonen. “It’s not over yet but generally it’s gone quite well. My notes were perfect, I tried to push as hard as I could and it paid off with some good times. The car has been really good; I haven’t changed anything all day. But that’s how it is when everything works and you’re happy; the times just come. The roads tomorrow are completely different and I hope they are wet. If it’s dry I don’t think I’ll be able to keep Loeb behind because the road will be a little bit loose, but if it’s wet - as it looks like it will be - then we can fight again.”
Jari-Matti Latvala had an inconsistent time in his Focus RS but returned to the Sapporo Dome parc ferme in second place. “It hasn’t been bad but it hasn’t been really good; it’s been something in the middle,” he said. “For us it’s up and down; some stages it’s gone well, but on others - especially the rutted afternoon ones - we’re losing time. Tomorrow’s stages are faster and I think should suit my driving style so I’ll try to go as quickly as I can but I need to think about the manufacturers’ championship. I want to catch Mikko but if I can’t I’ll live with that and try to keep Sebastien behind.”
Citroen Total team driver Sebastien Loeb is third overall and perfectly on course for the six points he needs to clinch the 2008 WRC drivers’ championship. The Frenchman took a couple of stages to settle into a more cautious driving rhythm than he was used to, but ended a trouble free day 4.4 seconds behind Latvala. “For me it’s not been too interesting; just driving and doing bad times,” joked Loeb. “But okay, I’m not here to take big risks. The Ford looks good in these conditions and Mikko is going very fast because he wants to win, but he and I are not in the same state of mind. Third place is looking good now and while it’s frustrating to drive like this, it’s what I have to do.”
On the home event for the Subaru World Rally Team, Chris Atkinson and Petter Solberg completed the day in fourth and fifth, separated by just 1.7sec. “The car was not right this morning so we lost a lot, but it was much better this afternoon and we were able to make up time,” said Atkinson. “I had a lot of understeer this morning but after service it was less. Okay, the times are still not where we want them to be, but we didn’t lose a lot of time to Sebastien this afternoon.”
Petter Solberg said: “We had no major problems today other than a small off in the first stage which didn’t cause us any damage. Today’s stages were very narrow and slippery and we knew that it would be difficult. The stages tomorrow are much faster and I think they will suit us better so hopefully we can increase our speed. I want to fight for a podium.”
Stobart VK M-Sport driver Matthew Wilson holds sixth place after an incident-free day in his Focus RS. “It is good to finish the day in a position to fight for a top-four spot,” said Wilson. “But okay, we have seen what has happened today and there is a long way to go in this event. The first two stages went really well and it’s great to have found the speed right from the word go. But running ninth on the road meant the stages were getting quite rutted and the one proper stage we did this afternoon was quite tricky.”
In front of the manufacturers’ home crowd, Suzuki World Rally Team drivers P-G Andersson and Toni Gardemeister rounded off the points winning positions in seventh and eighth respectively. "I think we've got off to a good start,” said Andersson. “Today's stages were very technical and tricky: I think we will enjoy the stages tomorrow and on Sunday more. For the time being we are in a good position and the car has been very reliable; now we have to capitalise upon this and avoid making any mistakes."