2003 World Rally champion Petter Solberg has won the first WRC Rally Japan today [Sunday], giving Subaru victory on home soil.

The Norwegian cruised through the final day, and although he didn't set any fastest stages times, he was always 'there or there abouts', pacing himself and maintaining his lead over Sebastien Loeb.

Solberg, who had led from start to finish, eventually took the honours by 1 minute 13.3 seconds. It was his third win of the season.

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"It's an incredible feeling let me tell you! I'm so happy to have won here; It's such a special event for Subaru that to come here and win in Japan on the first attempt is almost like a dream come true," he reflected.

Loeb was second, to further strengthen his position at the top of the 2004 drivers' championship. The Frenchman now has 84 points, 30 up on Solberg, who lies second. Loeb can now seal the title at the next rally.

"Of course, I'm very happy," commented Loeb. "It's the third time we finished second this season and I think it's looking rather good for the coming rounds."

Ford's Markko Martin took the final spot on the podium, after a better final day - the Estonian was a lot more happier with his pace notes through the concluding seven tests.

"At last our pace notes were perfect and today felt like a new rally for me," said Martin. "We made a few corrections, but that's normal on a new rally. Ironically, I had my notes right but on the long stage this morning I couldn't hear them because of an intercom problem. We were still fastest though, so it wasn't too bad!"

Marcus Gronholm and Carlos Sainz were involved in the only real battle for position, the Finn moving ahead on the third stage of the day, and eventually taking fourth by 13.1 seconds.

"The final leg was quite exciting for me," said Gronholm, "as we had a big battle for fourth place. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could."

Harri Rovanpera was next up in sixth, after Mikko Hirvonen was delayed by gear selection troubles.

Hirvonen failed to start the Satsunai super special stage and was thought to have retired. However, regulations relating only to super special stages allowed him to limp to the service park where a new gearbox was fitted and he took seventh.

Anthony Warmbold took the final championship point, after finishing eighth. Warmbold was also the top privateer entry in his Ford Focus, just under a second up on Toshi Arai, who was ninth in a 2003 Subaru Imprea, while Kamada Takuma rounded out the top ten.

There was only one works retirement during the event, Francois Duval going out today on SS22, after going off the road. He had been running sixth overall.

"We came round a left bend leading into a third gear right. The pace notes said it was a long corner but it turned out to be a short one," he explained. "I went into the bend too deep and tried to correct the line but the car slid off backwards down a steep bank. It was a small mistake. The car wasn't damaged but the bank was far too steep for us to get it back on the road."

In total 53 competitors completed the event, 84 having start on Friday.

The World Rally championship now returns to Europe later this month when the Welsh capital of Cardiff hosts the Rally GB on 16 - 19 September.

The rally has moved forward two months so conditions in the south Wales forests should be drier and faster than usual.


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