The World Rally Championship takes a step into the unknown this week when it journeys to the 'Land of the Rising Sun' for a new-look Rally Japan.

This penultimate round is firmly established in the series. However, a new host city means that for the second time the roads will be very much an unknown.

After four years in Obihiro, the rally moves west to Sapporo in the central region of Hokkaido, the country's most northerly island.

Related Articles

It is based at the 43,000-capacity Sapporo Dome, a modern baseball and soccer stadium that hosted the 2002 World Cup. The dome also hosts five asphalt speed tests, the first time in WRC history that two cars run simultaneously on a super special stage in a covered arena.

All the special stages are new to the WRC but most of the countryside tests have been used for many years in Japan's national championship. Most are based on medium to high-speed gravel forest roads and organisers describe them as flowing with good visibility.

Special notes:

Rally Japan has traditionally been a punishing event; a rally of attrition. Since the inaugural event in 2004, the event has been won by four different manufacturers and four different drivers.

This year marks the first time the rally has been run outside of Obihiro, and whilst the stages are totally new to all but Japanese National Championship competitors, the stern challenge remains.

The roads tend to be narrow in Japan and are often characterised by fast straights leading into tight corners. With trees and ditches close to the side of the road, there is little room for error.

The braking areas are particularly complex, as the drivers tend to arrive at high speed with little idea about the levels of grip and traction that they might encounter. The surfaces consist of soft gravel that can become muddy, a little bit like Argentina or Britain.

The weather has a huge impact, with rain and cold conditions not an uncommon occurrence in Hokkaido, which is at the same latitude as Siberia in Russia.

The Rally Japan is due to get underway with a ceremonial start in Sapporo on Thursday evening before the teams go on to tackle 29 gravel stages totalling 343.69 competitive kilometres. The finish takes place back in Sapporo on Sunday afternoon.

Pirelli's soft compound Scorpion gravel tyre is the only available choice for WRC crews.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

Sebastien Loeb extended his lead in the race for the 2008 drivers' title to 14 points following his victory on the last event, the Rallye de France-Tour de Corse.

Now classified with 106 points to the 92 notched up by Mikko Hirvonen, the Frenchman could take the title in Japan, assuming he leaves with a 10-point cushion.

In the Manufacturers' Championship, the Citroen Total WRT remains in control, although the BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT did cut the gap back from 27 points to 23 following round 13.

Since the last event there have been a number of developments, most significantly news that MotoGP star Valentino Rossi will do December's season ending Rally GB in a Ford Focus RS WRC car.

Sebastien Ogier has also been handed an opportunity to drive a World Rally Car in Wales and as a reward for winning the J-WRC title in a Citroen C2 S1600, will use a C4 WRC.

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

Citroen Total WRT:

[Sebastien Loeb, car #1 and Daniel Sordo, car #2]

Sebastien Loeb:

"The Rally Japan has always been a particularly complex event. The first time we did the recce, we wondered whether in fact it was possible to stay on the road for three days! The stages of the Obihirobased rally were fast, narrow and difficult to commit to memory, and there was always a chance you could be caught out by one of the innumerable changes in grip. Moving to another region probably won't make matters any easier. Contesting a new event with the title at stake only adds to the stress, although it's not the first time we have faced this situation. We are also aware of how competitive our C4 is, and we will still have the Wales Rally GB to come afterwards. That takes away some of the pressure, but our objective will be to try to sew up the championship in Japan."

"If our rivals win, we will need to come away with at least six points. That means finishing in third place and we will start with that in mind and see how things unfold. We will always have the possibility of adjusting our pace to ensure we stay concentrated and don't make any mistakes. I would like to wrap up the title in Japan so that we can focus our attention on winning when we go to Wales."

Dani Sordo:

"We have put our off in Corsica behind us. I made a mistake and there's no point in dwelling on it. I prefer to look ahead. I only contested the Obihiro-based Rally Japan twice and I'm not against the switch to Sapporo, although I'm not expecting our task to be any easier this time round. Once again, tyres promise to play a big role. If the conditions are damp, our Pirelli Softs should go well. If the going is dry, however, we will need to take care with them. It will also be important to take good notes. The switch to a new region will level the playing field and I am encouraged by our recent runs on the loose compared with the drivers who are known to be quick on gravel. It's now up to me to try to catch them. It won't be simple, but we will try to find a fast but safe pace. If we succeed, we should be able to secure a good result to score the points' Citro?n needs in the Manufacturers' championship."

BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT:

[Mikko Hirvonen, car #3 and Jari-Matti Latvala, car #4]

Mikko Hirvonen:

"Our recent test went well and it was a good feeling to be back on gravel. I have to go to Japan and try to win again, it's the only thing I can do to try to keep the championships alive. We need to be careful with the pace notes because the roads are narrow and fast. On the more open corners it will be important to check carefully for rocks to see if it will be OK to make cuts or not. It helps that everyone is competing on these roads for the first time because nobody has the advantage of previous experience. I enjoy making new notes and feel confident when I'm doing that. However, it's easy to slip up on new rallies, because we write the notes on the first pass during the recce and then check them just once on the second pass before driving the roads flat out. I've seen pictures of the stages but I don't know much more than that. There seems to be plenty of loose stones, a little like Australia but not to the same extent, and I understand the roads are narrow and soft in places."

Jari-Matti Latvala:

"I'm happy to be back on gravel but I enjoyed the last two days' driving in Corsica which boosted my confidence. I'm told these stages are fast and similar to the roads we drove when the rally was based in Obihiro. Perhaps they are slightly rougher and narrower. Mikko and I have to try to take maximum points and keep the Citroens behind us. The recce is very important because everyone must write new pace notes. We have to be focused because otherwise it can affect the quality of the notes, and when they're not precise then it's difficult to trust them fully and to attack as much as normal. I was happy with my pre-event test in which I made good improvements to my dry weather suspension set-up."

Subaru WRT:

[Petter Solberg, car #5 and Chris Atkinson, car #6]

Petter Solberg:

"Rally Japan is a special event for me and for Subaru. My message to the Subaru and WRC fans in Japan is this: please look forward to this rally! We have been shifting our focus to gravel performance for Japan and GB and developing a setup that will get the best from the car in these conditions. Just like when I won Rally Japan in 2004, I will head to Japan thinking of nothing but a victory. Even though it's all new, the fact that I've been to Japan so many times before should be an advantage for me. Japan is my second home. The Japanese rally fans are so enthusiastic, and it is a very important rally for Subaru and for me, so I know the fans will be great at cheering us on!"

Chris Atkinson:

"Though the stages are new and the rally has moved to Sapporo, experience shows that I like the narrow high speed stages of Japan which are similar to Finland where I scored my last podium this year. I was the first Australian driver to stand on the podium when I scored my very first podium here on the 2005 Rally Japan so I have some good memories. It also tells you that we can perform better when the average speed is faster. It's an important rally for us and the team, and I'm looking forward to it. It's the team's home and everyone there is a huge Subaru fan!"

For more see Part 2 of our preview for the Rally Japan.