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The quickfire opening to the second half of the FIA World Rally Championship season continues next week when the BP-Ford World Rally Team heads to the Land of the Rising Sun for the newest event in the series.  Rally Japan (31 August - 3 September) is appearing for only the third time, but the third event in just four weekends provides the perfect opportunity for the team to maintain the momentum which has brought two wins in the last three rallies.

Victory in Finland earlier this month for Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen's Ford Focus RS World Rally Car was the squad's fourth in 10 rounds.  It also ensured that with six rounds still remaining, Ford is enjoying its most successful championship season since 1993.

The event is based in Obihiro, 900km north of Tokyo on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido.  The gravel speed tests are located in the hills north of the city and run through natural forests.  However, many of the roads are man-made and don't always follow the contours of the hillsides.  Frequently narrow, the special stages are often shaded by a heavy canopy which sunlight rarely penetrates and the tracks tend to stay damp.

The weather in Hokkaido in early September is often wet.  Forecasts indicate rain is likely again this year but there appear to be no signs of typhoons, which Japan is especially prone to experience in August and September.

Both Grönholm and Rautiainen and BP-Ford team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen have competed on both previous Rally Japan WRC events.  Grönholm, who lies second in the drivers' championship, won last year and was fourth in 2004.

"I'm excited about all these last six gravel events," said 38-year-old Grönholm.  "I will start each of those believing I can win.  I had absolutely no problems with the car in Finland and that's really encouraging.  If a driver is happy about the reliability of his car it makes a big difference to his confidence and his general approach to an event.

"The stages in Japan are mostly narrow, but still fast, and there isn't much room to choose your line.  They remind me of the stages in Britain and some are even like Finland, but without the big crests and jumps.  If I can be as fast in Japan as I was in Finland then I will be quite happy!  It's important to take care coming out of the corners.  The ditches are close to the road and there are usually bushes and leaves covering them so you can't really see them properly.  Some are quite deep and it's quite easy to drop the car into one just because you can't see it," he added.

Japan marks 26-year-old Hirvonen's 50th WRC start.  "If I had to pick any highlights from the first 49 rallies, I would choose two," he said.  "The first would be in Spain last year when I finished third in a Focus as a private entrant.  The second would be Finland last week.  That was also very special.

"I quite enjoy Japan.  In fact Finland was a good shakedown for next weekend because the stages in both countries are fast and I'm already in the right attitude.  We're not allowed to test outside Europe before events but the stages are not so different to Finland so the set-up of the car will be pretty much the same.

"The narrow roads are the main feature.  But they are changing.  Even last year, when it was only the rally's second time in the championship, the roads were a little wider.  People were braver in cutting corners and when that happens the bends change in character and eventually become more open," added Hirvonen.

Team News

* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force low wear gravel tyres and teams are only allowed to nominate one tread pattern this year.  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 are available in soft, medium and hard compounds.   

* BP-Ford's drivers have a busy schedule around the rally.  Before arriving in Obihiro, Grönholm and Hirvonen are undertaking a day's media work in Tokyo on Saturday.  After the event Grönholm returns home via Taiwan where he will demonstrate the Focus ST and other Focus models to media and customers at Taiwan International Speedway circuit.

* The M-Sport run Stobart-VK Rally Team has entered two 2006-specification Focus RS WRCs.  They will be driven by Britons Matthew Wilson / Michael Orr and Argentines Luis Perez Companc and Jose Maria Volta.  This will be the first occasion that 2006 Focus RS cars have been made available to a private team.  Irish crew Gareth MacHale and Paul Nagle will drive a privately-entered 2004-specification Focus RS.  

Rally Route

The rally is again based in Obihiro, in the Tokachi region of Hokkaido, with a central service park at Kita Aikoku a few kilometres south.  All the traditional stages are based north of the city and are broadly similar to 2005, although several have been modified.  The main change is the introduction of a new super special stage next to the service park which will be used on all three days.  After a city centre ceremonial start on Thursday evening, drivers face two anti-clockwise loops north-east of Obihiro in Friday.  Saturday's second leg is the longest of the event and is located in the same area but makes use of tests further south near the town of Ashoro.  The final day is the shortest and heads north west of Obihiro.  Drivers face 345.72km of competition over 27 stages in a route of 1586.28km.  

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