Rally Japan – Ford preview
- 22nd October 2007, 8:35am
With just three rounds remaining of the 16-rally season, BP-Ford heads to the Land of the Rising Sun with a 32-point lead in the manufacturers' championship in its bid for a second consecutive crown with the Focus RS World Rally Car. A maximum 54 points remain. In the drivers' series Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen lead by four points as they challenge for a third world crown, with a maximum 30 points still available.
The rally is again based in Obihiro, 900km north of Tokyo on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido. It is likely to be the final visit here as plans are under way to switch the event to Sapporo next year.
The gravel speed tests are located in natural forests in the hills north of the city. However, many of the roads are man-made and don't always follow the contours of the hillsides. They are fast but frequently narrow and deep ditches are often hidden by dense vegetation right on the edge of the roads. The special stages are often shaded by a heavy canopy which rarely allows sunlight to penetrate and keeps the tracks damp.
The rally is later in the season than usual and this could affect road conditions. Temperatures are likely to drop below freezing at night and with early morning starts to each leg, ice could be an unwanted visitor. Drivers will also face long days with Saturday's middle leg demanding 14 hours behind the wheel after a 05.05 start.
Grönholm has a good record in Japan, having won in 2005 and taken second last year. This is his fourth start. "The drivers' championship is at an exciting point," said the 39-year-old Finn. "There are just four points between myself and Sébastien Loeb and that is not a comfortable margin. It is too close to call. A win in Japan would obviously help but I think this could go all the way down to the final round in Wales.
"The roads are very narrow in places, but quite quick. They remind me of the stages in Great Britain, and even Finland in places. They require great care because there are deep ditches by the side of the road. It's hard to pick them out because of the thick vegetation and it's tricky to see the exit of corners anyway because overhanging trees block the view," he added.
Hirvonen's best result was third last year and the 27-year-old has no fears about the possibility of wintry weather. "I've heard temperatures might drop to -5ºC at night, with the possibility of snow and ice," he said. "If that's the case, being a Finn, those conditions would suit me. There are places that are good for cutting corners but it's important to be careful of stones in the grass and the ditches. I've heard that at this time of the year there isn't so much tall vegetation so it may be possible to see more of what is at the side of the road. The ditches can be right on the edge and even if you are just 10cm off line the car can slide into them. They are steep and there is no way out.
"Cutting belongs to rallying and if the corners are checked properly during the recce, a driver can put the car right off the road and save vital tenths of a second. I try to drive the recce to the maximum speed limits, but to understand where cuts can be made and where they can't, it's necessary to slow down and take a really good look at the edge of the road through the side window," he added.
* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force gravel tyre for the low-wear loose surface roads. The pattern is relatively compact to ensure a maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the ground for the best possible grip and traction. The grooves can be hand cut to open them if there is a lot of loose gravel on the road surface or if the tracks become muddy. The tyres will be available in soft and medium compounds.
* The team has scheduled an additional test next month in the build-up to the championship's first visit to Rally Ireland. Grönholm will drive on 7 - 8 November with Hirvonen completing the test the following day. Both drivers have already tackled two-day preparation events in Ireland this season.
* The trip to Japan offers Ford the opportunity make the most of the team's visit to Asia. Following the rally Grönholm will visit Taiwan to launch the Focus WRC limited edition road car in Taipei. Hirvonen and Lehtinen will visit China for a media driving event in Beijing before Hirvonen moves onto Thailand for more media work in Bangkok.
There are few changes to the route, with the rally again based in Obihiro and a central service park at Kita Aikoku, a few kilometres south. After a city centre start ceremony on Thursday evening, the main changes have been introduced to Friday's opening leg to the north-east of the city. The opening stage of the two anti-clockwise loops is run in the opposite direction to previous years and the next two stages comprise roads not used since the rally's WRC debut in 2004. The second leg is the longest of the rally and runs slightly further west. Both days include two passes over a short spectator test at Rikubetsu and end with two runs at a super special stage next to the service park. The final day heads north of Obihiro and ends with a fifth pass over the super special stage. Some of the most northerly stages have been dropped, to reduce the distance of liaison sections and to avoid the prospect of bad weather. Drivers face 27 stages covering 350.19km in a route of 1575.79km.
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