Japan - Finish
Rally Japan was supposed to be a possible turning point between championship contenders Marcus Grönholm and Sébastien Loeb. It rather became a missed opportunity for both men as each had to retire following accidents, and if Loeb returned to the race, it
was only for the experience.
The Frenchman and the Finn will therefore have to resume their battle over the two remaining rounds, in Ireland and Great Britain, where the pressure will only increase.
However, the absence of the traditional leaders should not diminish the quality of Mikko Hirvonen's Japanese victory. The young Finn gave a good fight and avoided the week-end's many traps to secure his third WRC success.
Dani Sordo saved Citroën's honour by driving into second place, while Henning Solberg reached the last step of the podium bearing the Stobart team's colours.
A second win this season for Hirvonen
Mikko Hirvonen demonstrated that he could hold his own when he won the brand new Rally Norway early in the season, before again appearing on the podium several times thereafter.
This week-end, Hirvonen's mission was to bring home additional points for Ford and, if possible, to help Marcus Grönholm's championship campaign. But his teammate's car-damaging mistake during the third stage would give Hirvonen the opportunity to defend his own chances for victory.
To do that, he had to hold back Sébastien Loeb – so he went into attack mode and took control of the race.
The battle would quickly turn to Hirvonen's favour when Daniel Elena, Loeb's co-driver, misread a pace note and called out to push instead of slowing down. Their resulting slide into a ditch would permit Hirvonen to start managing his lead, avoid taking risks around the many traps found in the stages, and eventually sign the win for himself and Ford.
Sordo buys some time
It is now hard to imagine how the constructors' title could escape Ford's hands, since Malcom Wilson's team can now count on a 34-point lead over Citroën. With two rallies to go, Ford is only two points away from the constructors' crown even if Citroën collects the maximum 36 points available by sucessive one-two victories.
The American manufacturer should have left Japan with the title, but Dani Sordo pushed back that almost inevitable conclusion by finishing second and bringing eight precious points to his French employer.
The Spaniard was the author of a good race on relatively unknown terrain. Not only did he avoid committing mistakes, but he finished 37.4 seconds away from Hirvonen, whose reputation on gravel is well-known.
Two Stobart cars within the top four
The Stobart team can rejoice over their week-end, which started well and ended well - although with different drivers. Jari-Matti Latvala was running a brillant race for the British team when he took command of the rally early on... But on the second leg, the Finn would go off-road and retire on the same stage that trapped Sébastien Loeb.
The prudent Henning Solberg, who was discovering this rally for the first time, would benefit from the retirements ahead of him. Without taking too many risks and by keeping pace, the Norwegian made his way onto the podium for the third time of his world rally career.
Despite his second leg retirement, Jarri-Matti Latvala came back strongly and offered the last remaining constructors' point to his team. The Stobart outfit is now only two points behind the Subaru team with the admitted goal of getting past them.
The team's good performance was completed by Matthew Wilson, who claimed fourth place following a last-day battle against Luis Perez Companc. Malcolm's son thereby achieved his best WRC result so far.
Munchi's Ford doubles its points and more
Even after slipping down a notch against Matthew Wilson, Luis Perez Companc can only be proud of his Japanese week-end. The Munchi's Ford team arrived in Asia with the objective of collecting points: Companc reached fifth position while his teammate Federico Villagra made it up to seventh.
Thanks to those results, the team added eight points to the six they already had in the bank, therefore more than doubling their tally in one week-end. A very good result indeed.
Stohl and Taguchi in the points zone
Manfred Stohl drove a cautious race over the three days of competition. That permitted him to reach the finish line despite a starter problem at one point on Saturday. The Austrian took the sixth position, seven minutes away from the rally leader, yet offered four more points to the OMV Kronos Citroën team.
The point that comes with an overall eighth place went to local driver Katsuhiko Taguchi. Gabriel Pozzo and Armindo Araujo completed the top ten list.
The next round of the World Rally Championship will be held in Ireland, 16-18 November.