Citroen privateer Petter Solberg
leads Rally Japan at the end of the opening day, despite battling with a fever and not feeling 100 per cent.
Solberg, who was eighth following the two opening short Sapporo super specials on Thursday night, got off to a strong start, winning two of the first three 'proper' stages to grab the early lead and pull out a 10.3 second advantage.
Although the Norwegian saw that margin cut back a bit on the repeat loop, he pushed on and prior to the third and fourth runs through the short 1.57 kilometre Sapporo super special, had an 8.5 second lead over Mikko Hirvonen. He then managed to stretch that cushion slightly in SS9 and SS10 – taking his third stage win of the event in Sapparo 4 - and will now go into Saturday's second leg with a 9.4 second lead.
"It feels great to finish the first day in Japan, as the overnight leader," said Solberg. "We know, and we have shown before that we are able to fight with the others when everything is perfect, and today it has been. Well, maybe except myself.
"I can really feel that the fever is definitely not helping, and at the end of the long stages today, I had to fight hard to keep focus and I know I lost time. I hope another night with some good sleep will help me. I have no special plan for tomorrow and I will just get back out there and do my best."
Hirvonen meanwhile had a bit of a slow start and slipped to fourth in the first loop. However the BP Ford
Abu Dhabi man, who is chasing a hat-trick of wins in Japan, bounced back on the repeat runs, winning SS7 and SS8, to haul himself right up into contention.
"I've had some difficult rallies recently and to be back in the fight for victory feels good," said Hirvonen. "My plan was to build my pace slowly as the day progressed. I'm sure the guys behind will attack tomorrow, but I'm ready for it."
Sebastien Ogier, who is back competing with the Citroen
'A' team, completes the top three, albeit 11.9 seconds off P2 – and 21.3 seconds off the lead. Still it was a good effort from the Frenchman and he was pretty pleased to be on course for a rostrum on his first outing in Japan.
"I didn't push in the last stage in case my rivals wanted me to be first out tomorrow," he explained. "I'm happy with my day and my place though. But I can't say I really like these stages and these conditions. I don't know yet if I'll be in a position to battle for victory right until the end, but we're only twenty seconds behind, so everything's still possible!"