90-strong field for Rally Japan
- 31st July 2006, 8:14am
The top of the 90-strong field was dominated with entries from Ford. BP Ford World Rally Team entered the Finnish duo of Marcus Gronholm, last year's Rally Japan winner, and youngster Mikko Hirvonen. To strengthen the 'blue oval' brigade, Stobart VK M-Sport are running Argentine Luis Perez Companc as a team mate to the young Matthew Wilson, son of M-Sport boss, Malcolm. It will be the team's debut run in Japan. Rounding out the Ford runners, will be the privately-entered Focus of Irishman Gareth McHale.
The formidable Citroen team will be entering three cars, with popular Spaniard Xevi Pons joining the lightening quick combination of compatriot Dani Sordo and Frenchman Sebastien Loeb. Despite Loeb's long list of rally conquests, victory at Rally Japan is one that has eluded him. Loeb - accompanied by the WRC's most successful co-driver, Daniel Elena - has finished second at Rally Japan every year.
Subaru World Rally Team (SWRT) will give local fans plenty to cheer about. Showman Petter Solberg will head up their entry, coupled with the Japan-experienced Australian Chris Atkinson. Solberg has already made a flying visit to Japan this month, when he demonstrated his WRCar to more than 3,000 rally fans and journalists. Solberg will be hoping to do more than demonstrate when he returns to the island in a month's time; the Norwegian was cruelly robbed of well-deserved victory when he hit a rock on the penultimate stage of last year's Rally Japan and retired.
As the third car for SWRT, reigning P-WRC champion and Japanese favorite Toshihiro Arai will trade up for his home event. This is a symbolic drive for the recent Rally Hokkaido winner as Arai drove an Impreza WRCar to victory in the FIA's Teams Cup series in 2001. Arai drove Impreza WRCars in rallies between 1999 and 2002 and is said to be looking forward to showing his stuff in this new car on home soil.
Other Japanese entrants include Fumio Nutahara, in a Mitsubishi and Takuma Kamada in a Subaru. Kamada finished second in the recent Rally Hokkaido in good stead for the world championship round on similar stages. The two drivers make up the field of 12 cars entered in the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship, of which Rally Japan is a round.
Not all the stars to watch will be crossing the start line. Gigi Galli is coming out to Japan's northernmost island to drive reconnaissance of the event and familiarize himself with the unique stages.
Rally Japan Clerk of Course Ryuji Makita is thrilled to see such a strong entry list for the third time running. "That we have so many people who want to enter this rally shows how popular rallying is in Japan," Makita said.
"In Japan, this is a very big spectator sport, but also it's a good place for the rally teams to market their cars. The strong entries from the top teams show that Rally Japan is an important part of the FIA World Rally Championship calendar. The competition will be furious on the stages, as I think many individual drivers and teams have points they want to prove here. It will be an exciting rally for everyone."
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