The Super 2000 World Rally Championship (S-WRC) will reach a pivotal stage next week at Rally Japan as Martin Prokop aims to snatch first place from the current series leader, Xevi Pons.
With only three registered S-WRC crews travelling to take on the challenge in the land of the rising sun – all of them in Ford Fiesta S2000s – those present could make up significant ground in what is turning out to be a tight title fight if they maximise the points-scoring opportunity available.
Current series leader Xevi Pons is one of seven S-WRC crews electing to skip the eighth round of the season, and that will give fellow Ford Fiesta S2000 driver Martin Prokop the chance to snatch first place from his Spanish rival.
Prokop is currently 18 points behind Pons, but a victory in Japan could elevate the Czech driver into the top spot.  If Prokop were to finish second next week, then it could result in the two Ford Fiesta S2000 crews jointly leading the S-WRC with only two rounds remaining.
Jari Ketomaa and Bernardo Sousa will also be in with a chance of moving up the championship standings should they secure strong finishes.
M-Sport’s new generation rally car has already achieved podium finishes in six of the seven rounds of the S-WRC so far, and the three Ford Fiesta S2000 crews fighting for class honours in Japan next week will want to extend that run.
Czech driver Martin Prokop has already racked up three podium finishes in the S-WRC and is currently only five points off snatching second position from rival P-G Andersson.  At Prokop’s most recent outing at Rallye Deutschland, the Czech driver finished second and was just 4.7 seconds off his first victory in the S-WRC.  This will be the first time that the reigning J-WRC champion has been to Japan but Prokop’s co-driver, Jan Tomanek, competed at 2005’s event alongside Roman Kresta. However, this will be of little advantage to the Czech duo as the event’s location has since moved and is now based in the city of Sapporo.  Prokop will be aiming for his first S-WRC victory in Japan and to move into the top two in the S-WRC overall standings.
Jari Ketomaa was unfortunate at his last S-WRC outing at Rally Finland where the Finn was forced to retire on the final day after a series of technical issues.  However, Ketomaa is the only S-WRC contender to have previously contested Rally Japan and will therefore hold a distinct advantage over both Sousa and Prokop who are less familiar with the Sapporo-based event. The Finn last competed at Rally Japan in 2008 and was leading the P-WRC throughout the rally until he was forced to retire on the final day.  Despite an unfortunate ending last time, Ketomaa will be looking to build on his past experience in an attempt to move up the S-WRC leader board and back into the top three.
This will be the first time that Bernardo Sousa has contested Rally Japan but the young Portuguese driver will be aiming for his first podium finish in the S-WRC. The 22-year-old driver finished fourth at Vodafone Rally de Portugal but suffered from a series of problems at Rallye Deutschland last month after a loss of power steering during the event’s opening day. This incident wreaked havoc from an old shoulder injury Sousa had sustained from karting.  However, the young driver managed to finish the Trier-based event seventh overall and is currently only four points behind Janne Tuohino and eight points behind Nasser Al-Attiyah. Sousa has spent the last fortnight in Portugal recovering from his shoulder injury and hopes that a strong performance next week will help move him up into the top eight of the S-WRC overall standings.
Martin Prokop said:
“Japan is a new rally for me so I don’t know what to expect.  I’ve been watching some footage today and the stages look like they could be very fast but I have no experience of this event so it is very difficult to tell until we get over there and do the recce.  I really need to score points at this event – the championship has started to get very tight and it’s now very important that I finish first or second in Japan.  I know that Jari [Ketomaa] wants to score points as much as I do so it could be a close battle between the two of us over the weekend. Jan [Tomanek], my co-driver, has competed at Rally Japan before but this was years ago and the event has moved to a new location now. It’s really just a question of how much risk to take next week – I am desperate for a win at Japan but at the same time, I would not be disappointed with a second place finish.”
Jari Ketomaa said:
“This is the second time I’ve been to Japan and the first time went very well for me - I was leading on the final day but had to retire after going off the road. It was really disappointing so I’d like to do better this time. I’m hoping the weather will stay dry  - if it rains, the stages could get very slippery and this would be hard when tackling the forest-based stages.  The stages were quite soft last time we were there but they are all very different – it’s a challenging rally.  It’s a shame there aren’t more S-WRC drivers coming to Japan but I think my main competition will be [Martin] Prokop – I know that he’s aiming to win next week and he’s been very fast in the last few events. I want to push from the first stage at this rally - I need to maintain a comfortable lead from the beginning.”
Bernardo Sousa said:
“I’m happy to be back on gravel for this event – it’s a surface I feel most confident and have the most experience driving on. The last S-WRC event in Germany didn’t go so well for me – I didn’t feel well and I struggled with my shoulder after losing power steering on the first day.  Since I’ve been back from Trier, I’ve been resting to make sure I’m in good health for Japan - I’ve got an event in Lisbon this weekend but I’ll be flying straight out afterwards and I’m due to be in Sapporo on Monday. From what I’ve seen from the stages, they are quite smooth and the weather forecast looks like it’s going to stay dry.  I hope it does stay dry – if it rains, it could be very difficult.  Prokop and Ketomaa are going to be tough competition next week – they’re very fast and will be fighting for the podium but my aim is to keep up with both of them and to get my first podium finish.”
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