The 1st Rally Japan takes place this coming weekend - the eleventh round out of sixteen in the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship.

Japan - like Cyprus, earlier in the year - will not count towards either the 2004 FIA Production Car WRC or the 2004 Junior WRC. It will however count towards the 2004 FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship [round four of seven].

After a ceremonial start in the host city of Obihiro, 900km north of Tokyo, the event will commence on Friday morning when 90 competitors from 17 countries will cross the start ramp.

In total, the event comprises 387.50 competitive kilometres and 27 stages run in the Tokachi region of Hokkaido. The longest stage is the Niueo stage at 26.57km, while the shortest is the 2.2km head-to-head Super Special at Satsunai.

Special notes:

First run in 2001 as the Hokkaido Rally, for the last two years the event has been included in the FIA Asia-Pacific Championship.

Following the inaugural Corona WRC Rally Mexico in March, Japan will become the second event to make its World Rally Championship debut in 2004. The third, Rally Italia Sardinia, occurs in October.

With FIA regulations preventing teams from testing outside Europe, the event's narrow gravel stages run in the Tokachi region remain unfamiliar for almost all the FIA WRC competitors.

Presenting crews with a series of twisty, smooth, loose-gravel roads, which are fast and flowing in places, the stages run through some deeply forested areas.

Weather conditions are expected to be wet and unpredictable, making tyre choice a difficult factor.


FIA World Rally Championship news:

Sebastien Loeb leads the World Rally drivers' championship, 29 points ahead of Markko Martin. Citroen meanwhile head the constructors' - 29 points ahead of Ford, while Subaru are a further 29 adrift in third.


News from the Manufacturers' teams:
555 Subaru World Rally Team:

[Petter Solberg, car #1 and Mikko Hirvonen, car #2.]

The Rally Japan has special significance for Subaru, as it will be the first time they compete on 'home ground'.

Team boss, David Lapworth commented: "Japan is Subaru's home as well as being its largest and one of its most important markets and, naturally, that makes Japan the most important, highly anticipated event of the year for us. This first Japanese rally provides a unique opportunity to impress the Japanese motorsport fans that have never before had the opportunity to see a World Championship Rally on their doorstep. That makes it very exciting."

Citroen Total:

[Sebastien Loeb, car #3 and Carlos Sainz, car #4]

Citroen sent Sebastien Loeb, Daniel Elena and engineer Didier Clement to take a look at the event in 2003. Loeb notes: "I have to say that what we saw last year does not necessarily reflect what we will find this time round since lots of stages are new. What won't change is the scenery. The region isn't particularly hilly and the forest roads are rather narrow and fast, with plenty of 4th-gear corners and long straights. Last year, there was also a very slow, twisty part, which should be dropped. The surface seems quite soft and is likely to rut, especially since it rained enormously during the 2003 event."

Marlboro Peugeot Total:

[Marcus Gronholm, car #5 and Harri Rovanpera, car #6].

Harri Rovanpera returns alongside Marcus Gronholm for this weekend's event.

"I'm convinced Japan is a great chance for us to win again," said Harri. "The team has put in a fantastic job this year to make the 307 WRC a superb car. OK, this is a new event, so we have no data of our own for the set-up, but the 307 has already shown that it is particularly effective on the loose. People in the sport often suggest that the Finns, the Brits and the French perform better in their home events, which they know by heart. I don't necessarily agree with that view. But this rally will in any case be new for everyone, so we will all be on an equal footing. It's going to be very interesting to see who comes out on top."

Ford Motor Company:

[Markko Martin, car #7 and Francois Duval, car #8.]

Ford co-ordination manager John Millington and tyre engineer George Black attended the Rally Japan last year on a fact-finding visit, in expectation of it being introduced into the championship this year. The information gained played a vital part in the team's tyre nominations for this year's event.

Francois Duval's normal co-driver Stephane Prevot meanwhile has withdrawn from the round following a family bereavement, his position will be taken by Philippe Droeven.

Mitsubishi Motor Sports:

Mitsubishi will miss this event, and the remaining five events of 2004, after modifying their programme to concentrate solely on testing for 2005.

Other significant entries:

Anthony Warmbold will campaign a 'privateer' Ford Focus, while the eight APRC contenders include: Karamjit Singh, Armin Kremer, Geof Argyle and Chris Atkinson.

Schedule:

The rally is based in the city of Obihiro, in the Tokachi region of Hokkaido, with a central service park at Kita Aikoku a few kilometres to the south. However, all the speed tests, except for the Satsunai super special stage, are located north of Obihiro.

After a city centre ceremonial start on Thursday evening, Friday's opening leg is the longest of the event. It comprises two identical anti-clockwise loops north of the town of Rikubetsu, 100km from Obihiro. The second leg follows an identical format with two clockwise loops over roads slightly further south. Both legs end with the Satsunai super special stage on the edge of Obihiro.

The final day, the shortest of the rally, comprises two identical loops north-west of Obihiro, split by a third and final pass over the Satsunai test.

Drivers face 387.50km of competition over 27 stages in a total route of 1677.43km.

Hot tip:

Carlos Sainz, he is something of a 'new' event specialist - having won in Indonesia, Cyprus and Turkey, all three in their debut year in the WRC.

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