Mikko Hirvonen came through to take the victory on the Rally Japan on Sunday after a number of the other works' drivers made mistakes during the three-day event and went off the road.

The BP Ford #2 driver began with the fourth best time in SS1 on Friday, before moving up to third overall in SS2 and then second in SS4, following the retirement of his team-mate, Marcus Gronholm. Heading into the mid-day service he trailed Ford 'B' team member, Jari-Matti Latvala by 5 seconds.

Hirvonen though put in a push on the repeat loop, overhauling Latvala in SS7, when he posted his first stage win of the event.

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He then proceeded to pull away from Latvala and Sebastien Loeb in SS7 and SS8 and following the two runs through the Obihiro super special stages ended the first leg with a 10.3 second advantage.

Day two was again tricky for the drivers' and following heavy overnight rain the stages were extremely slippery.

Hirvonen lost out to Seb on the first test on Saturday, although only by a fraction, as he was just 0.1 seconds slower. Hirvonen then set the pace in the next test, Puray 1 - the longest of the event, but with Seb only 0.4 seconds behind it was extremely close.

The next stage though turned out to be the turning point and when Loeb and Latvala both went off, Mikko found himself comfortably in front, more than 40 seconds up on Daniel Sordo.

Following SS14, the Finn returned to the mid-day service area 50.6 seconds up on the Spaniard.

In the afternoon loop the BP Ford #2 continued to push, and once again he set top three times in every single stage, just like he had in the morning.

Following the super specials Hirvonen ended the day with a 38.4 second advantage and well on course to take his second WRC win of the year and the third of his career, to add to his triumphs in Norway and Australia.

Sunday turned out to be a mere formality and Mikko sauntered to the finish, eventually taking the honours by 37.4 seconds.

"I'm really happy," said the Finn at the finish. "It was a difficult weekend. I'm just glad that we could help Marcus. During the whole event the car has been perfect and I was able to fight at the top. So it's a good omen before Ireland and GB."

The result all but guarantees Ford the manufacturers' title, although mathematically speaking, Citroen remain in contention - as they are 34 points adrift and 36 are still available with two rounds to go.

Mikko's team-mate and current championship leader, Gronholm did not finish after crashing out in SS4. He remains top in the drivers' championship though as Loeb failed to score too.

Daniel Sordo meanwhile took the runners-up spot, which was some consolation for Citroen, after Seb went off when his co-driver, Daniel Elena called out the wrong pace note in SS13.

Loeb re-started under the SupeRally on day 3 but had mechanical problems in SS26 and did not finish.

Sordo for his part though was happy with second, his best ever result on a gravel surface event - and his third podium finish in succession. He was also pleased with his stage times and in total he set top five times in every single test, bar three, including six stage victories.

"I'm not only happy with second position but also the pace I was able to maintain on gravel with many stage times at the level of Seb, Marcus and Mikko," he confirmed. "We will try to end the season at this encouraging rhythm."

Henning Solberg took the final spot on the rostrum, albeit more than 4.5 minutes off Sordo in his Stobart Ford. The Norwegian eased off a lot on the final day however, eager to ensure he took P3 on his first outing in Japan.

"After going flat out on Friday we could maintain a steady pace afterwards to secure this third place that is very important for us and for the sponsors. It is our first time in Japan, I enjoyed it both for the food and for the stages," said Henning.

Henning's team-mate, Matthew Wilson was fourth in the 'third' Stobart entry, having overhauled Munchi's team leader Luis-Perez Companc in the final 'proper' test of the day.

Matt had started the day over 20 seconds behind, but in the end beat the Argentine to P4 by just 2.5 seconds. The Englishman was the only driver in the top eight to make any progress on the final day.

It is his best WRC result to date and the youngster was rightly pleased: "I'm so happy with this fourth place. It has been a fantastic day," he noted post-SS27.

Companc was also buoyant despite having missed out on fourth. Like Matt it was the Argentine's best ever finish in a WRC event: "We lost one position but I'm happy anyway because we had an interesting day and a good fight. It's more fun to compete," he stated.

Of the rest, Manfred Stohl had to settle for sixth in his OMV Kronos-run Citroen Xsara WRC. The Austrian lost over 2 minutes on Saturday when he had mechanical problems in SS14. That dropped him behind Wilson and Companc and he was powerless to recover on day 3.

"We had fun on the stages but unfortunately our car wasn't fast enough to fight against the two Ford's," he noted.

Federico Villagra was next up in seventh in the #2 Munchi's car, while Mitsubishi Lancer Evo runner, Katsuhiko Taguchi took the final 'senior' WRC point in eighth - and he also secured the overall Group N win as well.

Of the others Subaru team leader, Petter Solberg finished just inside the top twenty, after retiring on day 1 with gear selection problems.

Latvala and Xavier Pons also got to the end thanks to the SupeRally but were a lot further down the leader-board, in 25th and 35th place respectively.

Latvala did come away with something though following his storming performance on day 1 and he inherited the final manufacturers' point when Seb retired in SS26. After having been in line for a podium finish though it was only a small consolation for the Stobart Ford man.

Subaru's Chris Atkinson was the other big retiree, following a big crash in SS6 on Friday. He was not classified, like Gronholm and Seb.

In the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship category Gabriel Pozzo took the honours more than 2 minutes up on his nearest rival.

Gabriel's win means that Toshi Arai will have to wait and see if he has done enough to secure his second PWRC title as Pozzo now moves up to second in the standings, 17 points adrift. Unlike Arai though, the Argentine still has two of his nominated events to come and could conceivably take the title, if he does well in Ireland and GB.

Leszek Kuzaj and Takuma Kamada complete the podium, after Armindo Araujo was excluded from second.

Evgeniy Vertunov was next up in P4, with Mark Higgins fifth follwed by Patrik Flodin, Juho Hanninen and Yoshio Ikemachi.

Arai was unable to add to his tally this weekend after a number of punctures dented his challenge. He finished 10th in the class.

The WRC now returns to Europe for the penultimate round, which will take place in Ireland from November 15-18.
Rally Ireland is a new addition to the series and the fifth asphalt rally of the year. The sealed surface is unusually bumpy, quite unlike any other asphalt event, and is very demanding of cars, tyres and drivers alike.