Japan - Stobart M-Sport Ford - Leg 1
Round 14 of the FIA World Rally Championship, Rally Japan, has offered the Stobart M-Sport Ford Rally Team its best opening leg with both nominated points scoring drivers inside the top five.
Leading the event after five stages
were Finns Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila who ended up with their best-ever leg 1 result: coming home in third just 13.7 seconds behind current leader, Ford's Mikko Hirvonen.
Henning Solberg/Cato Menkerud showed the form that has previously been seen by them on loose surfaces to finish the day in fifth position just 7.8 seconds from Dani Sordo in fourth. Brits Matthew Wilson/Michael Orr have topped off a fine day for the Stobart team by finishing in ninth position.
True to tradition, Rally Japan was a test of toughness, taking out several top WRC competitors over the course of this opening day. Of the 13 WRC crews only ten have managed to bring their cars home over the ten demanding stages that made up the 106 kilometres of leg 1.
Weather conditions were the topic of the morning as fog, combined with a fast-rising sun, caught out even the best on the opening 9.03 kilometre test. After the sun had risen the next testing chapter was surface wear as the morning's loop of stages was repeated in the afternoon, creating large ruts and tough conditions for crews.
Last night's ceremonial start painted the picture for the Japanese enthusiasm as over 60,000 spectators lined central Obihiro to applaud their favourite drivers ahead of today's leg; which was run to the north of Rally HQ. The day then drew to a close with two passes over the spectator-friendly Obihiro super special.
Creating yet another record for the Stobart history books, by finishing an opening leg of the WRC in third position, Latvala dominated with top-three stage times on all but one test; as well as setting two fastest times. On his 50th WRC event, the 22-year-old is again putting-on-the-pace to challenge the sport's best and will head into tomorrow's second leg just one position and 3.4 seconds behind triple FIA World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb
Being back on a gravel surface is what Solberg has been waiting for since New Zealand and the results have proved his desire. His first trip to Japan has not fazed the Norwegian who has been pushing from the outset and rewarded with a top-five position after leg 1.
After a tough opening stage where bad light and fog hampered his ability, Solberg fought back with a string of top-five stage times; his only problem a huge spin on the second pass of stage 1 losing ten seconds.
Twenty-year-old Wilson is lurking on the leaderboard hunting for his second points finish for the 2007 season. After a slowish start due to lack of visibility the Englishman hit back with some quick stage times but struggled on the day's longest stage Kimun Kamuy where loose, wet gravel sections began to unsettle his rhythm. Wilson will head into tomorrow's second leg just 30 seconds off the final drivers' point position.
"It was a fantastic start to the rally for me to be leading even though the conditions were quite difficult this morning. The grip was changing a lot and in some places the roads were dry but very damp, and sometimes muddy, under the trees. This afternoon has been harder as Mikko has been going a lot faster than me. I have had a really good feeling with the car but on stages 6 and 7 I had slightly less confidence and lost a bit of time as I didn't want to make any silly mistakes. We really need to get to the finish of this event, the experience is extremely important. The car has been fantastic today and the tyres are working very well. To be leading here has been an amazing feeling but I know not to get too excited, I made mistakes in Sardinia and Finland when leading so now I will concentrate on my driving. Tonight we will make some changes ahead of tomorrow's stages which I am more familiar with."
"The first stage this morning was difficult because of the fog but generally it has been a very good start to the rally for me. The feeling with the car is good and my confidence is high again now that we are back on gravel. I am very happy with how we have started this rally. I had a big moment in the afternoon stages and a spin on one of the shorter stages where we slid wide on a fast right hand corner and stalled the car losing about eight seconds; but most people seemed to be making mistakes there also. Some of the stages were quite rough and slippery and if it continues to rain overnight then they will be even more difficult tomorrow. I have been driving as fast as I can today but haven't been taking any big risks."
"The conditions were very difficult this morning, firstly with fog on the first stage and then with mud and slippery conditions on the third stage. There was a six-kilometre section on stage 3 that was very fast but muddy and I just didn't have the confidence to push to the max there. Generally it has been a good start to the rally though and everything is feeling very good with the car. Most of the time we lost today was on the one stage and there was a section that just didn't work well for us. Apart from that it all went well and our times were pretty good. We lost some time on stage 7 after sliding down into a ditch on a left hand corner and were very lucky to get away with it unscathed. The conditions were tough for the opening day but I felt I coped quite well and am happy with my driving today."
Team Principal Malcolm Wilson:
"It has been a really outstanding performance by Jari-Matti today. He has again led another WRC event and has shown a fantastic pace. This drive really has put the Stobart team in a strong position to move ahead of Subaru in the manufacturers' championship and obviously we are also hoping that he can help with Marcus' quest to win the drivers' title as well. Henning has put in a solid drive to be fifth on his first attempt at this event and Matthew has been showing some good pace on these difficult stages as well. It's a great position to be in going into the second day tomorrow and hopefully all three crews can repeat their strong performance tomorrow."
Source Stobart M-Sport Ford