Petter Solberg leads the way after the opening leg of Rally Japan, but Sebastien Loeb is on course to retain his WRC title after ending day one just 22 seconds off the pace in second place.
Solberg, the defending Rally Japan winner, topped the times outright on SS4 and SS8 and was also joint quickest through SS2 as the Subaru driver produced a consistent display to give him a good chance of repeating his victory of twelve months ago.
Despite being faced with the problem of acting as road sweeper for the rest of the field, Loeb battled back from a challenging morning to end the day in second place, jumping ahead of both Marcus Gronholm and Chris Atkinson on the second run through the long Kunneywa-Niueo stage when he powered his Xsara WRC to the fastest time. Having already admitted that he isn't necessarily looking to win in Japan, it remains to be seen whether or not Loeb will challenge Solberg for the rally lead on the remaining two legs or focus on maintaining a position which will give him the title.
On an understandably difficult day for the entire Peugeot team, Marcus Gronholm emerged from leg one within striking distance of both Solberg and Loeb, his 307 WRC topping the times on SS6 to end the day just under 35 seconds behind the Norwegian's Subaru.
However Gronholm admitted that he wasn't feeling confident going into leg two, with the 307 not to his liking throughout the day. Behind the former champion, Chris Atkinson made the most of his past experience on the event to post two fastest stage times and sit fourth overnight. The Australian held second place at the mid-morning service halt, although he was unable to match that performance in the afternoon and slipped down to fourth. However he still has a margin of over 20 seconds to fifth placed Harri Rovanpera, who produced another assured display at the wheel of the ever improving Mitsubishi Lancer. Even more impressive was the performance of team-mate Gigi Galli who ended the day sixth as he attempts Rally Japan for the first time, the team possibly wondering if it was the right decision to use Gilles Panizzi as the second points scoring entrant with the Frenchman struggling to get back up to competition speeds and down in 13th place.
Francois Duval ended the day seventh ahead of Ford duo Roman Kresta and Toni Gardemeister, although both drivers weren't happy with the way the opening leg had gone, Kresta enduring a difficult morning before improving his pace through the afternoon and Gardemeister struggling with pace notes he was unable to trust throughout the morning which left him fighting over the final five stages of the day to break back into the points. At the end of leg one, the Finn is less than three seconds behind his Czech team-mate.
Having been called upon to replace Markko Martin in the second Peugeot, Daniel Carlsson produced a solid display to lie tenth overnight having done little testing in the 307 WRC ahead of Antony Warmbolds Focus and Armin Schwarz in the remaining Skoda – Mikko Hirvonen having gone off the road and retired from the leg on SS7.
Daniel Sola was the only other major retirement on the opening leg, tyre issues forcing him to withdraw between SS8 and SS9. He will restart on leg two tomorrow.