Subaru team leader Petter Solberg has taken the early advantage in Japan following leg 1, the Norwegian heads the field by 12.7 seconds, after having set the quickest times in four of the day's nine special stages.

'Hollywood' who suffered a huge accident in Germany two weeks ago, admitted that he needed to regain his confidence.

"It's been a tough day but things have gone really well. The car has been perfect, no problems at all," he said. "Perhaps I took a little bit of a wrong tyre choice for those last stages, but I can't complain. I'm just really pleased that my confidence in driving is back to normal and we've got a good chance for this rally."

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Sebastien Loeb meanwhile is second despite having to 'sweep' the road, due to his start position. The Frenchman also notched up four quickest stage times, as he seeks to strengthen his grip on the 2004 drivers' title, which he currently leads by 29 points.

"A good day, we are on the pace of the fastest cars and I believe we can do well," he noted. "I think tyre choice will be the key point for tomorrow."

Marcus Gronholm completes the provisional podium, 17.8 seconds adrift of the leader in his Peugeot 307 WRC, and currently the only other 'real' contender for the victory.

"So far it's been very good," he stated. "I like the stages here: they are quite fast and you need to attack. Unfortunately I had a soft brake pedal that meant that I couldn't push as hard as I wanted. Nonetheless, I think I have found a good rhythm with the car and the event now. We're looking competitive, and my plan is to build on that."

Ford duo Markko Martin and Francois Duval are fourth and sixth respectively, both over a minute off the pace after having had difficulties with their pace notes.

"Our pace notes were horrible," said Martin, "and Beef [Michael Park] spent 50 per cent of the time calling the notes and the other 50 percent writing changes. As an example, on the third stage we had a fifth gear corner in the notes and it was no more than third gear. That was scary and I eased off after that. We weren't confident of what lay on the inside and the outside of bends so it was hard to slide the car or make cuts."

Citroen's Carlos Sainz lies fifth sandwiched between the two Fords. He was the only other driver to win a stage, the Spaniard taking the honours on the final test of the day, the super special - Sataunai 1.

Mikko Hirvonen and Harri Rovanpera round out the top eight, while Antony Warmbold is the top privateer in ninth and Toshi Arai is tenth.

Rovanpera suffered from gearbox problems all day, losing fourth gear a few kilometres into the opening test, and although it was fixed in service A, exactly the same issue happened again after a few kilometres of the fifth stage and he dropped nearly two minutes.

"It was a shame about the gearbox problem, because without that we could have been right up there," he reckoned. "There is a big gap between third and fifth gear, so I was having to drive really carefully. We've been desperately unlucky to drop so much time so soon but we still have a long way to go so I'm not giving up yet!"

Chris Atkinson heads the Asia Pacific Rally Championship contenders, 13th in the overall standings.

There were no major retirements today, and of the 84 competitors who took the ceremonial start Thursday evening, 66 completed the day's action.

Leg 2 tomorrow starts at 0530hrs when cars leave the Kita Aikoku Service Park to contest eleven more narrow, loose gravel stages and a further 124.98 competitive kilometres. The first stage, the short 7.89km test from Pawse Kamuy is located 82.45km from the service park and starts at 0728hrs. The final stage, a repeat of the Satsunai Super Special, starts at 1916hrs. The Leg will end with a 45-minute service before the final day of action on Sunday.


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