The World Rally Championship takes a step into the unknown this week when it journeys to the 'Land of the Rising Sun' for a new-look Rally Japan.

This penultimate round is firmly established in the series. However, a new host city means that for the second time the roads will be very much an unknown.

After four years in Obihiro, the rally moves west to Sapporo in the central region of Hokkaido, the country's most northerly island.

It is based at the 43,000-capacity Sapporo Dome, a modern baseball and soccer stadium that hosted the 2002 World Cup. The dome also hosts five asphalt speed tests, the first time in WRC history that two cars run simultaneously on a super special stage in a covered arena.

All the special stages are new to the WRC but most of the countryside tests have been used for many years in Japan's national championship. Most are based on medium to high-speed gravel forest roads and organisers describe them as flowing with good visibility.

Special notes:

Rally Japan has traditionally been a punishing event; a rally of attrition. Since the inaugural event in 2004, the event has been won by four different manufacturers and four different drivers.

This year marks the first time the rally has been run outside of Obihiro, and whilst the stages are totally new to all but Japanese National Championship competitors, the stern challenge remains.

The roads tend to be narrow in Japan and are often characterised by fast straights leading into tight corners. With trees and ditches close to the side of the road, there is little room for error.

The braking areas are particularly complex, as the drivers tend to arrive at high speed with little idea about the levels of grip and traction that they might encounter. The surfaces consist of soft gravel that can become muddy, a little bit like Argentina or Britain.

The weather has a huge impact, with rain and cold conditions not an uncommon occurrence in Hokkaido, which is at the same latitude as Siberia in Russia.

The Rally Japan is due to get underway with a ceremonial start in Sapporo on Thursday evening before the teams go on to tackle 29 gravel stages totalling 343.69 competitive kilometres. The finish takes place back in Sapporo on Sunday afternoon.

Pirelli's soft compound Scorpion gravel tyre is the only available choice for WRC crews.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

Sebastien Loeb extended his lead in the race for the 2008 drivers' title to 14 points following his victory on the last event, the Rallye de France-Tour de Corse.

Now classified with 106 points to the 92 notched up by Mikko Hirvonen, the Frenchman could take the title in Japan, assuming he leaves with a 10-point cushion.

In the Manufacturers' Championship, the Citroen Total WRT remains in control, although the BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT did cut the gap back from 27 points to 23 following round 13.

Since the last event there have been a number of developments, most significantly news that MotoGP star Valentino Rossi will do December's season ending Rally GB in a Ford Focus RS WRC car.

Sebastien Ogier has also been handed an opportunity to drive a World Rally Car in Wales and as a reward for winning the J-WRC title in a Citroen C2 S1600, will use a C4 WRC.

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

Citroen Total WRT:

[Sebastien Loeb, car #1 and Daniel Sordo, car #2]

Sebastien Loeb:

"The Rally Japan has always been a particularly complex event. The first time we did the recce, we wondered whether in fact it was possible to stay on the road for three days! The stages of the Obihirobased rally were fast, narrow and difficult to commit to memory, and there was always a chance you could be caught out by one of the innumerable changes in grip. Moving to another region probably won't make matters any easier. Contesting a new event with the title at stake only adds to the stress, although it's not the first time we have faced this situation. We are also aware of how competitive our C4 is, and we will still have the Wales Rally GB to come afterwards. That takes away some of the pressure, but our objective will be to try to sew up the championship in Japan."

"If our rivals win, we will need to come away with at least six points. That means finishing in third place and we will start with that in mind and see how things unfold. We will always have the possibility of adjusting our pace to ensure we stay concentrated and don't make any mistakes. I would like to wrap up the title in Japan so that we can focus our attention on winning when we go to Wales."

Dani Sordo:

"We have put our off in Corsica behind us. I made a mistake and there's no point in dwelling on it. I prefer to look ahead. I only contested the Obihiro-based Rally Japan twice and I'm not against the switch to Sapporo, although I'm not expecting our task to be any easier this time round. Once again, tyres promise to play a big role. If the conditions are damp, our Pirelli Softs should go well. If the going is dry, however, we will need to take care with them. It will also be important to take good notes. The switch to a new region will level the playing field and I am encouraged by our recent runs on the loose compared with the drivers who are known to be quick on gravel. It's now up to me to try to catch them. It won't be simple, but we will try to find a fast but safe pace. If we succeed, we should be able to secure a good result to score the points' Citro?n needs in the Manufacturers' championship."

BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT:

[Mikko Hirvonen, car #3 and Jari-Matti Latvala, car #4]

Mikko Hirvonen:

"Our recent test went well and it was a good feeling to be back on gravel. I have to go to Japan and try to win again, it's the only thing I can do to try to keep the championships alive. We need to be careful with the pace notes because the roads are narrow and fast. On the more open corners it will be important to check carefully for rocks to see if it will be OK to make cuts or not. It helps that everyone is competing on these roads for the first time because nobody has the advantage of previous experience. I enjoy making new notes and feel confident when I'm doing that. However, it's easy to slip up on new rallies, because we write the notes on the first pass during the recce and then check them just once on the second pass before driving the roads flat out. I've seen pictures of the stages but I don't know much more than that. There seems to be plenty of loose stones, a little like Australia but not to the same extent, and I understand the roads are narrow and soft in places."

Jari-Matti Latvala:

"I'm happy to be back on gravel but I enjoyed the last two days' driving in Corsica which boosted my confidence. I'm told these stages are fast and similar to the roads we drove when the rally was based in Obihiro. Perhaps they are slightly rougher and narrower. Mikko and I have to try to take maximum points and keep the Citroens behind us. The recce is very important because everyone must write new pace notes. We have to be focused because otherwise it can affect the quality of the notes, and when they're not precise then it's difficult to trust them fully and to attack as much as normal. I was happy with my pre-event test in which I made good improvements to my dry weather suspension set-up."

Subaru WRT:

[Petter Solberg, car #5 and Chris Atkinson, car #6]

Petter Solberg:

"Rally Japan is a special event for me and for Subaru. My message to the Subaru and WRC fans in Japan is this: please look forward to this rally! We have been shifting our focus to gravel performance for Japan and GB and developing a setup that will get the best from the car in these conditions. Just like when I won Rally Japan in 2004, I will head to Japan thinking of nothing but a victory. Even though it's all new, the fact that I've been to Japan so many times before should be an advantage for me. Japan is my second home. The Japanese rally fans are so enthusiastic, and it is a very important rally for Subaru and for me, so I know the fans will be great at cheering us on!"

Chris Atkinson:

"Though the stages are new and the rally has moved to Sapporo, experience shows that I like the narrow high speed stages of Japan which are similar to Finland where I scored my last podium this year. I was the first Australian driver to stand on the podium when I scored my very first podium here on the 2005 Rally Japan so I have some good memories. It also tells you that we can perform better when the average speed is faster. It's an important rally for us and the team, and I'm looking forward to it. It's the team's home and everyone there is a huge Subaru fan!"

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally team:

[Francois Duval, car #7 and Matthew Wilson, car #8]

Francois Duval:

"It is not going to be easy for me to go fast from the start in Japan because the last time I was here was three years ago but OK this year the rally is in a new location which means new roads, and pace-notes, for everybody. It took some time for me to find a good setup with the Focus in New Zealand but now I have the gravel kilometres on board from that event we can hopefully transfer the knowledge into speed this week in Japan. There are some big fights for the top places in the championship right now so these guys will be hard to match but hopefully by the end of the rally I will be pushing for a podium like on the last two events in Spain and Corsica."

Matthew Wilson:

"Things are going to be quite interesting this year in Japan coming to a new place where it's new stages and potentially a new surface for everybody. From some pictures I have seen of the roads it looks like they are going to be quite narrow so it could be a challenging event. I'm looking forward to it though, last year we had a clean run and a great result and hopefully we can do the same again this year. Again though it will be a challenge and we are going to have to write fresh pacenotes for all the stages and I think this will be a part of everyone's approach to the rally that is going to be crucial."

Munchi's Ford WRT:

[Federico Villagra, car #9 and Henning Solberg, car #10]

Federico Villagra:

"This is going to be an interesting rally and I prefer lots of smaller stages rather than not so many long ones so for me I think it will help having 29 stages to cover. It is a new rally for everyone which will make things more even but I really don't know what to expect of these conditions because I know nothing about the region. I like to visit Japan, it is a different culture with different things to see and the people there are crazy about rally. Since Spain I have been rallying in Argentina on gravel again so my feeling should be good from the start. Last year I had a very good result here and again this season we will be pushing hard to collect some good points for me and also for the Munchi's team which is still ahead of Suzuki in the Manufacturer Championship."

Henning Solberg:

"I was on the podium in Japan last year and I would love to be on it again in 2008. I like the type of stages there were in Obihiro and I hope these will be similar in Sapporo. Last time I was on gravel was in New Zealand and we won seven stages... that was more than Sebastien and he won the rally! I hope the setup of the Focus from New Zealand will work as well in Japan and then for sure we can be pushing for a podium. Japan is a great place for Rallying, especially all the fans there and last year I discovered Sushi, this is the proper stuff. I will try my best for some good points here because I can still move up a place in the championship and also the Munchi's want to stay in front of Suzuki so I will do my best to help add some good points to their team's tally."

Suzuki WRT:

[Toni Gardemeister, car #11 and Per-Gunnar Andersson, car #12]

Toni Gardemeister:

"Japan is a really difficult rally as it is so easy to make a mistake: a fact that many drivers have found out the hard way! I don't really know what it will be like this year though. The key to doing well in Japan is to be very neat and precise, and try to never get off the line. I quite like it, because in some ways this makes it a bit similar to Rally Finland. One big difference though is that the roads are a lot narrower and the grip is much more inconsistent - or at least this was the case when I did Rally Japan in the past."

P-G Andersson:

"I'm really pleased to get back to gravel. It's my favourite surface and I think we can do well in Japan. We've done a lot of work on the SX4 WRC since the start of the year and now I think it is really starting to pay off. The stages in Japan require proper commitment from the driver, particularly under braking, so I think that they should suit us well. After Corsica my confidence is back now, so my target will be to do my very best and try to finish in the points for Suzuki at home."

Production Car WRC:

Round 7 of 8.

Mitsubishi;s Juho Hanninen will have a great chance to take the lead in the battle for the 2008 Production Car World Rally Championship title on the Rally Japan this weekend.

Hanninen currently trails Andreas Aigner by four points, but with the Austrian having not nominated this event, the Finn is determined to take advantage and ideally secure the maximum 10 points.

"Without some of the other drivers here, I have to push for the win," said Juho. "It is a very good opportunity for me. I have done the last two rounds of the WRC in Spain and Corsica, mainly for asphalt experience, but it's also been good for me to keep on driving. Now, though, I want to win in Japan. That's all I'm thinking about. I am happy with the Mitsubishi. It has been solid and reliable this season."

15 regulars from the PWRC have opted to take in this event, and in addition to Hanninen, Toshi Arai, Martin Rauam, Armindo Araujo and Fumio Nutahara should all figure quite strongly.

Indeed Nutahara will debut the latest specification Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X on his home round.

"I will do my best to meet the expectation," said Fumio. "In the Japan Rally Championship this year, I participate with Evolution X and the development has improved. The Lancer Evolution X comes to PWRC with still more. I think we can show a lot this week."

Katsuhiko Taguchi, who is one of two 'wild card' runners, will also use the new Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X: "This year my participation is in the PWRC and I hope to have a good result like last year," he added.

"I participate a lot in the development of this new car. It feels good to see the car making its debut at last. Moreover, I'm very confident of the support of the five dealer mechanics chosen from the 4,400 Mitsubishi mechanics to support me in a Mitsubishi Motors dealer team. This is the first time in two years. I am aiming at a good result."

Nine P-WRC regulars meanwhile will skip Japan and as well as Aigner, the likes of Nasser Al-Attiyah, Martin Prokop, Bernardo Sousa, Patrik Sandell and Jari Ketomaa will all be absent - although the latter is taking in the event, but won't be able to score P-WRC points.

Other significant entries:

87 crews due to start.

87 crews are due to start the Rally Japan and while all the manufacturer teams will be in action, there will only be 13 in World Rally Cars, with Conrad Rautenbach the sole semi-privateer entry.

Of the rest, as well as the 17 crews in the P-WRC, another 57 will also take in the round. 42 will compete in Group N cars, including Jari Ketomaa - a regular in the PWRC, but who did not nominate this event to score points on, while seven have entered under the N1 class, one in N3, three in A7, three in A5 and one in A6.

Route:

After a ceremonial start in Sapporo Dome on Thursday evening, the rally heads east for stages near the cities of Yubari and Mikasa on the opening day. The long second leg heads south for tests near the coast at Tomakomai and close to Lake Shikotsuko, with the final day in the same area but closer to Tomakomai. The first two legs end with two passes over the super special stage inside the Dome and the test is used for a fifth time midway through the final day. Drivers tackle 29 stages covering 343.69km in a route of 1316.28km.

Last year:

Mikko Hirvonen won the Rally Japan last year after 'big guns' Sebastien Loeb and Marcus Gronholm both faltered. Dani Sordo took the runners-up spot, 37.4 seconds further back, while Henning Solberg completed the podium followed by Matt Wilson and Luis-Perez Companc in fourth and fifth. Manfred Stohl, Federico Villagra and Katsuhiko Taguchi rounded out the points scorers.

A number of the front runners had problems and in addition to Loeb and Gronholm, the event also claimed the scalp of Chris Atkinson, while Petter Solberg, Xavier Pons and Jari-Matti Latvala finished under the SupeRally format.

 

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