Ford teams 1-2 in Japan
An estimated 64,000 people attended last night's start ceremony for this 14th round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Obihiro. Despite temperatures dropping rapidly towards freezing, fans on this most northerly of Japan's four main islands began lining the streets in the city centre more than four hours before the leading drivers started.
The competition began for real this morning with the first of two loops of gravel speed tests covering 51.74km north-east of Obihiro. Thick fog combined with the low angle of the rising sun made visibility difficult over the opening 9.03km Pawse Kamuy Reverse special stage while ice added to the challenge on the following 13.95km Cup Kamuy.
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen were fifth through the opening stage in their Focus RS World Rally Car before setting second fastest time in Cup Kamuy to climb to second overall. Second fastest in the 26.03km Kimun Kamuy, the longest stage of the leg, sent the 39-year-old Finnish pilot and leader of the drivers' standings to the top of the leaderboard.
However, Grönholm went off the road in the 2.73km Rikubetsu test, dropping a minute and damaging the roll cage inside the door on his side of the car. The damage was too great for Grönholm to continue for safety reasons and he retired from the day's action. The team and FIA technical officials will now examine the point of impact in greater detail to determine whether Grönholm will be able to return tomorrow under SupeRally regulations.
"The accident happened at a third gear corner at a point in the stage where I changed my pace notes during the recce," he said. "It's faster there this year because some trees have been cut down. I slid wide and the right rear wheel hit some straw bales. The impact threw the car down a bank into a tree stump. The impact was hard and on my door. The stage was covered with loose gravel and was slippery all through. It will be hard to repair the damage but the team will do everything it can."
BP-Ford team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen were fourth on the opening stage but climbed to third on the next. Second fastest time in Rikubetsu promoted the 27-year-old Finnish driver to second overall in his Focus RS, 5.0sec behind Jari-Matti Latvala.
"The roads were narrow, slippery and fast and the fog and ice meant it was a really tricky morning," said Hirvonen. "Visibility was down to 100m on the first stage. The second was icy and now that the temperature has risen, it will be wet and damp there this afternoon. It will be interesting now because if I can match Sébastien Loeb's speed he will have to decide whether to chase the rally win or think about his championship position and perhaps drive more cautiously."
Leaderboard after stage 4 of 27
1. J-M Latvala/M Anttila FIN Ford Focus RS 29min 28.1sec
2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Focus RS 29min 33.1sec
3. S Loeb/D Elena F Citroen C4 29min 34.2sec
4. H Solberg/C Menkerud N Ford Focus RS 29min 50.1sec
5. D Sordo/M Marti E Citroen C4 29min 54.8sec
6. P Solberg/P Mills N Subaru Impreza 29min 55.3sec
7. M Stohl/I Minor A Citroen Xsara 30min 12.2sec
8. M Grönholm/T Rautiain FIN Ford Focus RS 30min 26.4sec
9. C Atkinson/S Prévot AUS Subaru Impreza 30min 29.1sec
10 X Pons/X Amigo E Subaru Impreza 30min 39.1sec