SWRT fourth and fifth after tough opener in Japan
On the home event for the Subaru World Rally Team, Chris Atkinson and Stéphane Prévot finished in fourth position overall on a day that saw three stages cancelled and one stopped prematurely. Teammates Petter Solberg and Phil Mills also climbed the leaderboard to secure fifth position at the end of the first day, the two crews separated by just 1.7 seconds.

After a morning in which stage three was cancelled due to the affects of adverse weather and the leaderboard remained largely unchanged, the afternoon was a completely different story. The stages were expected to be much more rutted and challenging on their second passes, but no-one could have predicted the early exit of two of the front-runners and the stopping of another three stages.

Stage three, repeated as stage seven, was covered in thick snow on the recce earlier in the week, and after this the surface was deemed too deteriorated to be used in competition. Then Citroen’s Dani Sordo and Ford’s Francois Duval fell out of contention on stage six. That stage was stopped when Duval’s co-driver Patrick Pivato was hospitalised when the duo slid off the road, but his condition is reported as stable. With the ensuing delays, stage eight was the third to be cancelled so as to allow the field to regroup in the service park and start the two spectator stages inside the Sapporo Dome on time.

“Rally Japan has traditionally been a rally of attrition, and we’ve seen today that this remains true despite the change of location” said David Richards, Subaru World Rally Team Principal. “We’ve also seen some very tricky conditions today, despite which Petter and Chris have kept their heads to finish in solid positions from which we are well placed to make the most of the remaining two days.”

The stages on the opening day of Rally Japan were characterised by slow corners, narrow roads and low grip; tricky conditions for the Impreza WRC2008 to master. Today was scheduled as the shortest of the rally, and was made more so by the cancellations. Totalling only 57.4km of this now 310.6km rally, there is still a long way to go over the next two days, on which the nature of the stages is much faster, more flowing and better suited to the new Impreza.

“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 Chris Atkinson. “I had a lot of understeer this morning and after service it was less. It was enjoyable to drive. Ok the times are still not where we want them, but we didn’t lose a lot of time to Sebastien this afternoon. Ford seem to have a very good engineering package for these conditions though and they’re very fast. I was making up time this afternoon so it would have been nice to keep going without the cancellations.”

“The stages this afternoon were very rutted and slippery, but we had no major problems today other than a small off in the first stage, but no damage” said Petter Solberg. “Today’s stages were very narrow and slippery and we knew that it would be difficult. The stages tomorrow will be much faster though and I think they will suit us much better so hopefully tomorrow we can increase our speed. I want to fight for a podium. The approach doesn’t change. It’s always the same focus on fighting for a win coming into every rally.”

The opening day of Rally Japan was run to the east of the city of Sapporo, the fifth largest in Japan on the northern island of Hokkaido. The forests of the Yubari and Mikasa regions just outside the city were set to play host to eight stages, followed by a double bill of the Sapporo spectator stage inside the Sapporo Dome to end the day.

Tomorrow’s route
Day two in Japan comprises ten stages totalling 156.78 competitive kilometres, making it the longest of the rally. There are four spectator stages, including the third and fourth passes of the Sapporo stage inside the Sapporo Dome. Aside from the Sapporo test which is adjacent to the service park, the stages run to the south of Sapporo within the forests that lie to the west of the city of Chitose. The Imeru spectator test is run adjacent to Chitose airport. The stages are faster and run on harder roads; conditions which suit the Impreza WRC2008 much better.

Day 1 Leaderboard
1. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen 42m40.8sec
2. J-M Latvala/M Anttila +26.2s
3. S Loeb/D Elena +30.6s
4. C Atkinson/S Prevot +1m00.3s
5. P Solberg/P Mills +1m02.0s
6. M Wilson/S Martin +1m11.2s
7. P-G Andersson/J Andersson +1m11.6s
8. T Gardemeister/T Tuominen +1m36.8s
9. H Solberg/C Menkerud +1m46.6s
10. J Ketomaa/M Stenberg +3m01.4s

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