BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen lead Rally Japan after controling today's opening leg.
The Finns powered their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to the front from the opening kilometre this morning and were never headed as they won six of the gravel speed tests, building a 10.5sec advantage. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen hold a comfortable third in a similar Focus RS after setting a consistently quick pace.
This 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship is based on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido and tens of thousands of fans brought the centre of Obihiro to a standstill last night to witness the start ceremony. When the competition began this morning, the rain of the last few days had subsided to leave clearer conditions but the narrow gravel special stages almost 100km north-east were extremely muddy and tricky.
Grönholm was fastest on three of the four morning stages to build a 9.3sec lead over Loeb. The BP-Ford team increased the ride height on his Focus RS at the lunchtime service to increase the clearance in the ruts when the same roads were repeated this afternoon. Grönholm was quickest on the same three tests and second through both passes of the 1.30km super special stage next to the service park on the edge of Obihiro.
"After our win in Finland on the last rally, I felt confident here before the start," said 38-year-old Grönholm. "It has been a good battle with Loeb today but I must admit I was hoping my lead would be bigger tonight. It's obviously going to be a hard fight and I need to stretch my advantage tomorrow because the gap at the moment isn't big enough. One small mistake could be costly.
Apart from Grönholm, Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) was the only other driver to claim fastest times. The Frenchman won four stages.
Behind Hirvonen, Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) holds fourth, the Austrian acclimatising quickly on his first visit to Japan. Dani Sordo (Citroen) is also making his debut here. He erred on the side of caution but dropped 20sec after stalling in stage four before edging ahead of Chris Atkinson (Subaru) on the penultimate stage.
Atkinson incurred a 50sec penalty when the team had problems fitting a suspension component in the midday service. Petter Solberg (Subaru) held an early third but dropped two minutes in stage four due to brake pad problems. He is eighth.
The second leg is the longest of the rally, covering 128.02km. After leaving Obihiro at 06.00, competitors return to the same area as today, although the route also includes tests further south near the town of Ashoro. After nine more stages, the day ends with two more passes over the Obihiro super special stage before reaching the final overnight halt at 19.53.
Rally of Japan after Leg 1
1. M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Ford Focus RS 1hr 11min 01.9sec
2. S Loeb/D Elena F Citroen Xsara 1hr 11min 12.4sec
3. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Focus RS 1hr 12min 04.0sec
4. M Stohl/I Minor A Peugeot 307 1hr 13min 22.6sec
5. D Sordo/M Marti E Citroen Xsara 1hr 13min 56.5sec
6. C Atkinson/G MacNeall AUS Subaru Impreza 1hr 13min 58.0sec
7. T Arai/T Sircombe J Subaru Impreza 1hr 14min 22.4sec
8. P Solberg/P Mills N Subaru Impreza 1hr 14min 36.9sec
9. M Wilson/M Orr GB Ford Focus RS 1hr 15min 06.7sec
10 L Perez Companc/J-M Volta ARG Ford Focus RS 1hr 15min 44.2sec