Surprise finish as Hänninen overhauls Novikov for P-WRC Japan win
Finnish driver Juho Hänninen and co-driver Mikko Markkula (Mitsubishi) scored their third victory of the season on the seventh round of the 2008 FIA Production Car World Rally Championship, Pioneer Carrozzeria Rally Japan. Evgeniy Novikov (RUS, Mitsubishi) scored the first podium of his P-WRC career for second, finishing just 6.3secs adrift of the Finn. Third in the podium fight was Toshi Arai (J, Subaru) who finished third in his Subaru Impreza WRX STi, just 2.9 further seconds adrift, after a tough final day battle.

In the P-WRC standings Hänninen now holds the lead with 36 points, just six points ahead of the Andreas Aigner (A, Mitsubishi). They now head to Wales Rally GB as the only two drivers fighting for 2008 P-WRC honours.

Norwegian youngster Eyvind Brynildsen (N, Mitsubishi) made an impressive start to the rally holding the lead for the best part of day one. Unfortunately the day was disrupted by an incident involving one of the World Rally Cars and as Brynildsen’s co-driver Denis Giraudet left the rally car to accompany his good friend Patrick Pivato (the co-driver of the car concerned) to hospital, it was to Brynildsen’s advantage that SS8 was cancelled as a result of the delay. Luckily he was able to complete the day as Giraudet returned in time for the Sapporo Dome superspecial stages. While this would normally breach regulations, the Stewards felt this was exceptional circumstances and commended the humanitarian action of Giraudet. Unfortunately a spin in the Dome cost Brynildsen the lead, which a chasing Novikov quickly adopted with Toshi Arai close behind in second.

With a change in running order for the P-WRC crews on day two, Juho Hänninen, who struggled a little the day before, returned to form and flew through the opening group, regaining seven places to second by the midday service. Despite being caught out a little by Hänninen’s renewed speed, Novikov responded accordingly, the 18-year-old Russian extending his lead even further. Arai and Hänninen traded stage wins thereafter and battled for second. The Finn settled into the higher spot on the final day and Arai steadily chipped away at the deficit, although it wasn’t enough to overhaul Hänninen. But disaster struck for Novikov on the last stage as a broken suspension saw him lose 35 seconds, unfortunately too much to retain the lead and forcing him to reluctantly hand it over to the Finn at the finish line.

After his spin at the end of day one, Eyvind Brynildsen (N, Mitsubishi) went into day two in third still with the aim to score points which have eluded him so far this season. But his rally continued to be fairly eventful as a puncture 4km before the end of SS16 resulted in a broken front right suspension and a broken rear left suspension two stages later put his wheel out of line. He changed the suspension overnight but was so unhappy with it that he changed it again mid way through the final day and simply survived until the end to happily take his five points for fourth, his best P-WRC result to date.

Entered into the event by the organisers, Takuma Kamada (J, Subaru) made a good start on day one, just softening the suspension as he progressed through the day. He damaged his front suspension on SS18, although luckily survived any time loss and drove trouble-free until the end to finish in fifth place.

Mirco Baldacci (RSM, Mitsubishi) found the conditions tricky through the first day, complaining his set-up wasn’t right. Unfortunately the conditions were even more challenging on day two which made setting competitive times even harder. Sadly things didn’t improve on the final day as he lost front-wheel drive resulting in no traction, and he was happy to finish an incredibly difficult rally in sixth.

Katsuhiko Taguchi (J, Mitsubishi), also entered into the event by the organisers, drove a new Lancer Evo X. Having not tested his new car very much he spent the first morning treating it as a test to discover a good suspension set-up. But on SS11, like many other competitors, he hit a barrier squashing the exhaust resulting in him being down on power over the next few stages. On the final day his only real concern was a large amount of mud being splashed onto his windscreen from his front bumper, but still set a fastest stage time on SS25 en route to finishing seventh.

2006 P-WRC runner-up Fumio Nutahara (J, Mitsubishi) also contested his home event in the new Lancer Evo X, marking the car’s first competitive outing in the WRC, but his rally wasn’t an easy one, especially with a late co-driver change as his regular co-driver Daniel Barritt was sick at home in the UK. The Hokkaido-born driver had to change a slow rear puncture before SS1 and was followed by another slow rear puncture on SS4, which cost him a few seconds, but he spent most of the first day in fifth. A clutch problem on the long 33.66km Kamuycep 1 (SS13) and a broken wheel made progress really difficult as it cost the best part of a minute over the duo of stages. Then on SS16 he took on board a rear right puncture just 4km after the start, damaging the suspension. But a rock on SS23 made the final day even more colourful as it caused a hole in the bottom of the car and for the next group of stages the car rapidly filled up with mud and water from the horrendous road conditions. He eventually finished his home rally taking the final point for eighth on his third outing with substitute co-driver Hakaru Ichino.

Armindo Araujo (P, Mitsubishi) had difficulty on the opening stages with a suspension that was too hard but things improved into day two with the Portuguese managing to clock a fastest stage time on SS15. A broken driveshaft stopped him in his tracks on SS16 but he restarted for the final day, and eventually finished ninth, despite a lack of traction.Stefano Marrini (I, Mitsubishi) had a trouble-free start to the rally, happy that his times were nearer the faster P-WRC drivers. He continued to drive carefully but he stopped on SS16, taking on board penalties for stages not completed. He restarted for the final day and although he had a small clutch problem for the morning’s group of stages, he was happy to finish 10th.

Subhan Aksa (RI, Mitsubishi) made changes to harden a soft suspension after the first few stages but he struggled to change gear a little as his left wrist was strapped after he sprained it during the night. Unfortunately, damper failure on SS13 and subsequent oil loss caused a small fire, but it was not enough to prevent him restarting the final day and he finished 11th.

Yasunori Hagiwara (J, Subaru) was happy with his stage times on the first day. He hardened his suspension for stages early on day two which improved his performance and he ran trouble-free through the challenging day three stages to happily finish his first P-WRC rally in 12th.

Gianluca Linari (I, Subaru) had a small off-road excursion just 2km into SS1 but he escaped damage. In such tricky conditions, he drove cautiously, especially as the ruts in the longer stages became even more like train tracks. He continued steadily through the final day until the last stage when the car became stuck on the side of the road, having to retire.

Evgeniy Vertunov (RUS, Subaru) struggled with his pace notes on the opening group of stages as the road was rougher than in the reconnaissance. He started the event with a new suspension but with minimal testing, the set-up wasn’t working to his advantage and in the middle of day two he opted to change the suspension back to the old one he used in New Zealand. While the suspension was better he didn’t get a chance to try it properly as he broke the front left driveshaft on SS16 which cost the Russian a couple of minutes over the group of stages. Unfortunately things only got worse as he went off the road 2km into the penultimate stage of the rally and, unable to rejoin, had to retire. Martin Rauam (EE, Mitsubishi) had a trouble-free start to the rally despite a spin in SS4 when he had a small off-road excursion. He went off the road on the long and tricky SS13 on day two and although he restarted for the final day, an electrical problem on SS23 marked the end of his rally.

Naren Kumar (IND, Subaru) made a fantastic start to the event clocking some of his best stage times of the season, reaching third at best on day one. He continued a little cautiously, especially on the stages run in the dark but unfortunately turbo woes on SS13 cut his day short. He restarted for the final day but he rolled his Impreza on SS23 and even though the car landed on the stage, the Indian driver was unable to start the engine, forcing him to retire. Engine woes for Hiroshi Yanagisawa (J, Subaru) on SS1 saw the Japanese prematurely sidelined from the event.

Driver Quotes
1st – Juho Hanninen, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX:
“This victory is remarkable! I was concentrating on fighting Toshi for second place and only after the finish of the stage did I realise that I had won. I was told the news by the reporters, as I was not aware of Novikov’s problem. It was a very tough rally, and I was happy to finish second - being first is a bonus and it was bad luck for Novikov. I had decided before the rally that I would take it easy on Friday as day one’s stages were quite tricky, and then attack on days two and three and I really enjoyed a great battle with Toshi. Now we go to Wales with two points extra advantage in the Championship. To be honest, I have not thought about the championship at all. It has been a good season so far and I am quite confident we can complete it.

2nd – Evgeniy Novikov, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX:
“The rear right suspension broke on the last stage. I don’t know why, all we did was go over a small bump – we didn’t hit anything. I’m really disappointed. It was a really good rally otherwise and at least we have shown we have the speed. It’s not as good as I wanted but it’s ok.”

3rd – Toshi Arai, Subaru Impreza WRX STi:
“It was a really good battle and we all fought hard - Hänninen did a really good job. Obviously I would like to do better on my home rally but I’m really pleased to finish on the podium after a difficult season so it’s a good way to finish the year.”

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