This weekend’s penultimate World Rally Championship (WRC) round, Rally Japan, offers the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team their last chance to reel in defending champion Sébastien Loeb.
Loeb needs only score a further six points in Japan to put Ford’s top driver Mikko Hirvonen out of title contention and wrap up a history-making fifth consecutive WRC drivers’ title. The Frenchman starts Rally Japan with a 14 point lead - if the gap is at least ten points over Hirvonen at the finish, the crown will be Loeb’s.
Citroën currently enjoys a cushion of 23 points in the battle for manufacturers’ honours. If the gap is 18 points or more on Sunday afternoon, then the 2008 title will go to Citroën for the fourth time.
But with the event moving to a new venue on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido near Sapporo, the country’s fifth largest city, from its previous location near Obihiro, every one of the 29 gravel stages will be new to championship competitors.
The gravel roads are described as being similar to those of Repco Rally New Zealand. Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena will start day one first on the road. The three day’s of competition include repeated loops of forestry roads for a total of 344.72km.
The rally’s home will be the 43,000-capacity Sapporo Dome, a baseball and soccer stadium that hosted the 2002 World Cup. Inside, spectators get the chance to see the cars in action creating a WRC-first when two cars simultaneously run super special stages in a covered arena. Also a short spectator stage near the New Chitose Airport brings more WRC action closer to Japanese rally fans who traditionally salute their heroes by waving flags on both sides of the rally route.
Thirteen world rally cars line up at the top of the 88-strong field, all running the specified Pirelli Scorpion tyre in soft compound only. With the region coming out the summer season, Rally Japan’s coastal proximity creates periods of unsettled weather, increasing the chances of rain during the weekend and changing the road surface.
“Rally Japan has always been a particularly complex event,” said Loeb. “The stages of the Obihiro-based rally were fast, narrow and difficult to commit to memory, and there was always a chance you could be caught out by one of the innumerable changes in grip. Moving to another region probably won’t make matters any easier. We are also aware of how competitive our C4 is, and we will still have the Wales Rally GB to come afterwards. That takes away some of the pressure, but our objective will be to try to sew up the championship in Japan.”
Winner of Rally Japan in 2007, BP Ford World Rally Team driver Mikko Hirvonnen and co-driver Jarmo Lehitnen reckon they have a level chance at beating Loeb.
“At least on gravel I have a good speed and can fight for the win,” said the 28-year old Hirvonen.  “Hopefully  I can do the same as last year and win Japan, but then again it’s not up to me that much; if he [Loeb] can take six points that’s enough. We need to go there to win and just see what he does.”
Returning to the BP Ford World Rally Team after two competing in the most recent tarmac rallies in Spain and France for the Stobart Ford team, Finn Jari-Matti Latvala is fifth in the driver standings, behind Spaniard Dani Sordo (Citroen) and Australian Chris Atkinson (Subaru).
Holding sixth in this year’s drivers’ championship, Subaru’s Petter Solberg, world champion in 2003, ranks as another favourite having won the inaugural Rally Japan in 2004.
"Rally Japan is a special event for me and for Subaru,” said Solberg. “My message to the Subaru and WRC fans in Japan is this: please look forward to this rally! We have been shifting our focus to gravel performance for Japan and GB and developing a setup that will get the best from the car in these conditions. Just like when I won Rally Japan in 2004, I will head to Japan thinking of nothing but a victory.”
Subaru World Rally Team operations director Paul Howarth adds: “Rally Japan has got a bit of everything; it’s got medium-fast, slow and high-speed sections, up and down hill gradients and a new super special stage on tarmac. It’s very unique, and hasn’t got any one particular characteristic. The drivers are not going to get a real feel for the conditions until they actually do the first stage because the shakedown is run on the super special stage and, therefore, on tarmac. It’ll be as tricky as any Rally Japan, especially the second passes of the stages where it’ll get very rutted. When you get rutted roads you don’t know what surprises you’re going to get as the cars could pull rocks up from beneath the surface, and because the roads are narrow these rocks won’t be swept to one side away from the line.”
A home event for manufacturer teams Subaru and Suzuki, both have a lot to live up to with Subaru running their WRC2008 model car for the first time on home soil.  Suzuki makes their first ever WRC team start at home with drivers Toni Gardemeister and P-G Andersson in the SX4 WRC.
Japan is also the penultimate round of the Production World Rally Championship (P-WRC) with Ralliart New Zealand entry of Juho Hänninen firm favourite to take the outright series lead from Austrian Andreas Aigner. Hänninen has two of the eight rounds left to score while Aigner has one round remaining to retain his four point lead.
FIA World Rally Championship for Drivers (after 13 of 15 rounds)
1, Sébastien Loeb (France) 106pts                
2, Mikko Hirvonen (Finland) 92pts                
3, Dani Sordo (Spain) 59pts               
4, Chris Atkinson (Australia) 45pts               
5, Jari-Matti Latvala (Finland) 42pts                
6, Petter Solberg (Norway) 40pts
FIA World Rally Championship for Manufacturers (after 13 of 15 rounds)
1, Citroen Total, 169pts
2, BP Ford Abu Dhabi, 146pts
3, Subaru, 87pts
4, Stobart VK M-Sport Ford, 62pts
5, Munchi's Ford, 22pts
6, Suzuki, 21pts
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