Solberg takes crushing victory

Petter Solberg has won the Rally Japan in dominant style. His victory, as commanding a one as there has been in 2004, ensured that Subaru clinched its first home win on the world stage

Solberg takes crushing victory

The reigning world champion led from the moment the event began on Friday, and once he'd seen off a spirited challenge from runaway WRC points leader Sebastien Loeb through the first leg, he never looked back. A blistering series of stage wins during leg two put the rally beyond reach and then it was just a matter of maintaining his advantage throughout the final day.

"This is the biggest win that I've had all year," he said afterwards. "We've never had so much support [from the fans] on a rally, and it is a big honour for me to win on Subaru's home soil here in Japan. We've had no problems at all with the car - it worked well - and that was the best thing about it."

Loeb started the final day with two stage wins, but with a 29-point advantage in the championship over Markko Martin before the event began, the French Citroen ace knew that barring a problem for the Subaru ahead of him, Solberg's 70s overnight advantage was an unrealistic target, and decided on a cautious approach. Added to that, Solberg was never more than 3s behind him on the stages.

"I started off with my usual strategy of taking the first day fairly easy and seeing what happened," said Loeb. "If I had been fast, I would have pushed for victory, but once I saw how quick Petter was I didn't want to do anything stupid. It was a tough rally, and you couldn't take anything for granted, so I'm very happy with second place. It was much better than I could have expected."

Martin finished third after a difficult rally for Ford. Shock absorber problems on his Focus on leg one and a set of over-optimistic pace notes ensured that he was kept busy through leg one. He begun to pull it together yesterday on leg two, but still the notes were telling him to go faster through corners than he thought sensible. But two stage wins on the final leg ensured that Marcus Gronholm would not steal away his podium place.

"At last our pace notes were perfect and today felt like a new rally for me," said Märtin. "We made a few corrections, but that's normal on a new rally. Ironically, I had my notes right but on the long stage this morning I couldn't hear them because of an intercom problem. We were still fastest though, so it wasn't too bad! The problem was that I'd had two days of not trusting the notes so I found it hard to put all my faith in them.

"Certainly the last day was much easier than the first and I'm frustrated that the notes were so bad to start with. But third is a good result for us. The car has been fantastic and, apart from trying a few small suspension modifications on Friday, we've not had to do anything to it."

It was another frustrating event for Gronholm. The Peugeot star's Rally Japan campaign derailed during the second leg, after he had moved in front of Loeb to head the pursuit of Solberg. But a ten-second jump-start penalty, a gearbox problem and poor tyre choice meant that he ended the day in fifth position more than two minutes off the lead.

The double world champion never gives up though and took another two stage wins on the final leg to move back in front of Citroen's Carlos Sainz for a fourth-placed finish. Sainz tried three different set-ups, one for each leg, and never truly found a balance he was happy with in the second Xsara. Nevertheless the Spaniard brought the Citroen home safely in fifth.

Harri Rovanpera was sixth in the second Peugeot 307. For the Finn the Rally Japan was a trial by torture. Dire gearbox issues on the first day rendered the whole weekend a damage limitation exercise. His only consolation was that he moved up two places on the final day at the expense of Francois Duval and Mikko Hirvonen.

Duval, who had a new co-driver Phillipe Droeven for the weekend after regular man Stephane Prevot had to return home for personal reasons, had looked good for a points finish, but the Belgian slid off the road on the second stage of the final leg. Hirvonen should have taken sixth, but hydraulic problems on the last leg dropped him behind the second Peugeot. Privateer Antony Warmbold took the final point ahead of Japanese Subaru drivers Toshihiro Arai and Kamada Takuma.

Solberg's victory means that he has moved back into second in the championship ahead of Martin, but the world champion is still 30 points behind the leader Loeb and admits that the defence of his title is out of his control. "I can't really think about it," he said. "I've just got to keep doing the best job that I can at each and every event and then just see what happens."

On the evidence of the Rally Japan, Solberg can't do a much better job than that.

Day 2: Solberg consolidates

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