01 Nov 08
The Sapporo Dome Super Special Stage caused no problems for the leading competitors on Rally Japan, and the top four positions remained exactly as they had done after SS18.
Rally leader Mikko Hirvonen started the day with a 26.2sec lead but lost a small part of that after swiping a fence with the rear of his Focus RS WRC on the opening test. He avoided problems on the remaining three stages to end the morning loop with a 16.9sec lead over Latvala. Despite deteriorating conditions, Hirvonen won two afternoon stages to extend his advantage, before Latvala narrowed it again to 15.5sec after the two Dome tests.
"It was quite a nerve wracking day," said Hirvonen. "The roads were much faster and it took a while for me to get used to that after the narrow, twisty stages yesterday. This afternoon there were ruts everywhere but I couldn't afford to ease my pace too much. The conditions were difficult and Jari-Matti drove quickly behind me. I came to Japan looking for a victory but even if I achieve that tomorrow, it looks like that won't help my championship challenge now. Tomorrow's stages are soft but they shouldn't be as slippery, so I hope we have an easier time," added Hirvonen.
Latvala focused his attentions today on staying ahead of third-placed Sebastien Loeb. "I succeeded in doing that. Maybe he drove carefully in the ruts but, if so, it made my life easier. I needed to drive fast because I didn't want Seb close to me, but equally I didn't want to put Mikko under pressure, so I followed Seb's split times in the stages," he said.
Sebastien Loeb completed the day well cushioned in third place, 38sec behind Latvala but 1m32.5s ahead of Chris Atkinson in third. If he holds the position until the end of Sunday’s competition he will win the 2008 World Championship for Drivers’. "It's no secret that I prefer competing to win rallies," said Sebastien at the final service. "Today, though, it was necessary to keep a cool head. The forest tracks to the south of Sapporo were just as narrow as those we visited on Day 1, but they were faster, too, which means we ran a higher risk of making a mistake.
"Whenever I felt that the conditions were a little too treacherous, I didn't hesitate to brake earlier than normal. There's a great deal at stake here and I didn't want it risk throwing it all away; we just tried to stay focused on our objective which was to consolidate our third place, and I think we succeeded quite well. There is a little less than 100km of stages to come tomorrow. The goal we are aiming for is within reach, but we will need to stay concentrated until the very end," he said.
Subaru World Rally Team driver Chris Atkinson moved up to fourth place following the retirement of his team-mate Petter Solberg on SS18. “Today was okay; we started ahead of Petter but he was a little quicker and got in front” said Atkinson. “His accident was a big shame - especially as were both in good positions, but you never know what could happen on this rally. I think we are too far behind to push for third tomorrow so the main aim is to keep our position.”
British driver Matthew Wilson struggled to match his opening day’s pace today, but a steady approach was rewarded with fifth place. “Today has been one of the toughest days of rallying I have contested in a while, said Wilson. “The stages were extremely rough and rutted and it took a lot to stay out of trouble. Tomorrow we will try to get back to the speed we were setting on Friday and try to stay ahead of the guys running behind us.”
The two Suzuki World Rally Team cars are sixth and seventh. Toni Gardemeister is in sixth place - having claimed Suzuki's first-ever stage win on SS19 - while P-G Andersson is just behind him in seventh, following a puncture that he had to stop and change on SS16.
Munchi’s Ford team driver Federico Villagra is eighth, in the final points winning position.
Saturday’s final results can be found by following this link.