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Hirvonen's lead shrinks on final leg

Mikko Hirvonen, Ford, Rally JapanMikko Hirvonen's Rally Japan lead is down to just 4.9 seconds over Ford teammate Jari-Matti Latvala going into the final loop, while Sebastien Loeb remains on course for a record fifth title in an increasingly distant third place.

Very heavy rain this morning made the stages extremely treacherous, and Latvala coped with the conditions better than the rest of the pack - taking a dominant win in the 27.76-kilometre Sikot stage and carving into his teammate's lead.

But Latvala, who has said all weekend that he was concentrating on staying ahead of Loeb and trying not to pressure Ford's title hope Hirvonen, played down the situation.

"(The gap) is a little bit too much still because the second time through will be good for Mikko," said Latvala.

"I was hoping to get a bit of benefit from this stage. Mikko is the first car on the road, and there is standing water on the road, and he's making ruts for me which is why it's a little bit easier for me. Because it's a sandy and flat surface, it's making it really, really slippery."

Hirvonen said he had just been extremely conservative as the weather worsened.

"I didn't want to take any risks," he said after Sikot. "I was aquaplaning all the time and I had many moments, so I just backed off and took it steady. I'll have to step on it now."

Citroen driver Loeb has taken it even easier than Hirvonen as the rain lashed down, making the most of the large gap behind him and dropping nearly two minutes away from the Fords. Third place today will make him the first five-time champion in World Rally Championship history.

"It's getting closer and closer," said Loeb. "At the moment we are in a good position so there's no need to take any risks. I'm just keeping the car on the road."

Subaru's Chris Atkinson continues to run a very lonely fourth, with the battle for fifth providing some late excitement. Both Suzukis out-paced Matthew Wilson this morning, pushing the Stobart Ford driver from fifth down to seventh.

But having moved into the top five, Toni Gardemeister is now under a lot of pressure from his flying teammate Per-Gunnar Andersson, as the WRC rookie charged back up the order following his puncture yesterday. Andersson began the day 33 seconds behind Gardemeister, but has narrowed the gap to just 5.7 seconds, thanks in large part to an excellent second-fastest time in Sikot.

Petter Solberg is also on a recovery drive in the second Subaru. He has rejoined under the Superally system after smashing his Subaru's right rear suspension prior to yesterday's superspecials, and is on the brink of taking eighth place from Federico Villagra (Munchi's Ford).

Leading positions after SS25:

Pos  Driver                Car         Time
 1.  Mikko Hirvonen        Ford        2h53:34.6
 2.  Jari-Matti Latvala    Ford        +     4.9
 3.  Sebastien Loeb        Citroen     +  1:47.2
 4.  Chris Atkinson        Subaru      +  3:15.9
 5.  Toni Gardemeister     Suzuki      +  5:17.5
 6.  Per-Gunnar Andersson  Suzuki      +  5:23.2
 7.  Matthew Wilson        Ford        +  5:28.5
 8.  Federico Villagra     Ford        + 13:14.2
 9.  Petter Solberg        Subaru      + 13:22.3
10.  Evgeny Novikov        Mitsubishi  + 15:26.8

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