Day 1: Solberg holds off Loeb

Citroen's Sebastien Loeb has reined in rally leader Petter Solberg (Subaru) at the end of the first leg of this weekend's inaugural Rally Japan reducing the Norwegian's lead from this morning to 12 seconds. Loeb took a string of stage wins to close in on Solberg and extend his lead over third-placed driver Marcus Gronholm

Day 1: Solberg holds off Loeb

Solberg went into the afternoon stages with a 20s cushion over Peugeot's Gronholm while Loeb was third, 1s adrift. But a hat-trick of stage wins by Loeb on the first three stages of the afternoon - SS5, SS6 and SS7 - propelled the Frenchman ahead of the Finn into second place and within 11s of leader Solberg.

The Norwegian fought back on SS8, showing his form from earlier in the day, but extended his lead over Loeb by just 1.3s. Gronholm, meanwhile, dropped six seconds on Loeb after SS8, but beat both the Frenchman and Solberg in the final stage of the day, the 2.2km Satsunai 1 after setting the fourth fastest time and now trails Loeb by just 5s.

Solberg, though, admitted that he was happy to have held onto his lead after suffering from a lack of balance, possibly the result of switching to a softer compound of Pirelli tyres for this afternnon's stages.

"The car was moving around a lot on the first three of this afternoon's stages," Solberg said. "Our tyres were quite soft and I'm glad not to have lost more time. In SS6 we had a bit of a fright when two deer wandered onto the stage in front of us! We didn't hit them, but I lost some time because I had to slow down. I'm leading now which is good, but I think tomorrow will still be a difficult day."

Loeb is pleased to be running second overall and admits he would be extremely happy to leave Japan with second place given his comfortable lead in the drivers' standings.

"I'm quite surprised to be up there when I was intending to take things comfortably," the Frenchman said. "I'm also surprised by how narrow and quick the roads are. It's potentially very easy to make a big mistake. I'm more than happy with second, so there's no real need for me to push."

Gronholm has had a difficult day, though, struggling with a lack of brakes in the afternoon. He is confident he can step up his pace tomorrow, however, and make a bid for the overall lead of the event and his second win of the season.

"So far it has been very good," he said. "I like the stages here - they are quite fast, and you need to attack. Unfortunately the soft brake pedal meant I couldn't push as hard as I wanted. Nonetheless, I think I've found a good rhythm with the car and event now. We're looking competitive, and my plan is to build on that tomorrow."

Carlos Sainz claimed the final stage win to add some colour to what has been a lackluster first day for the Spaniard. The Citroen ace is currently lying in fifth place overall enjoying his own private battle for fourth with Ford's Markko Martin. The two look unlikely to catch the three out front as they're already a minute down on Solberg.

Martin was delighted to have come out on top in his battle with Sainz, though, having suffered problems with his shock absorber settings in the afternoon stages.

"We tried new settings but unfortunately we went in the wrong direction," said Martin. "It made the first stage of the afternoon quite difficult, but we changed the settings back ourselves and the rest weren't so bad. Something has been missing today, though, and I'm not sure what. We need to find more speed."

Ford's Francois Duval is their nearest challenger in sixth spot, 19s down on Sainz and in a relatively safe position with Subaru's Mikko Hirvonen a further 29s down in seventh.

Peugeot's Harri Rovanpera has slipped to eighth overall after running in seventh after the four morning stages. The Finn has blamed gearbox problems on his worsening pace after suffering a loss of fourth gear in the morning. Mechanics swapped the old gearbox for a new one, but the problem repeated itself in the afternoon.

"I lost fourth gear in the first few kilometres of the opening stage," Rovanpera said. "It was a really big problem, as there is a big gap between third and fifth gear. Otherwise, my feeling with the car is quite good."

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