Mikko Hirvonen led the Rally Japan from start-to-finish this weekend, but while he took the maximum haul it wasn't sufficient to keep his title dream alive and with Sebastien Loeb finishing third, the Frenchman becomes the first ever driver to win the WRC crown five times.

Hirvonen powered into the lead on the opening stage on Friday and while the first day was heavily truncated - four tests were cancelled, two as a result of snow and two following an accident - the 28-year-old managed to build a good cushion. Indeed he won six of the day's seven tests and ended proceedings 26.2 seconds up on his BP Ford Abu Dhabi team-mate, Jari-Matti Latvala.

Saturday saw the two Fords maintain their one-two formation, although in the first loop Jari-Matti did cut the gap back to 16.9 seconds. However, in the afternoon Hirvonen re-asserted his authority somewhat.

Going into the final leg he enjoyed a 15.5 second lead and while that was reduced to just 4.9 seconds post-SS25, the pendulum swung back the other way in the final loop.

Mikko thus finished the event, which was one of the most challenging of the season - especially on the Sunday as torrential rain made conditions treacherous, 31.1 seconds up on Latvala.

It was second win in succession in Japan and his third of the season following earlier triumphs in Jordan and Turkey.

"I'm delighted with the win but at the same time disappointed that my hopes of the drivers' title are over," Hirvonen reflected. "We did all we could but it wasn't enough to prevent S?bastien Loeb winning the title, which he richly deserves, and I congratulate him."

Latvala meanwhile was second and that ensured Ford took the maximum 18-points, something that allows the 'Blue Oval' to close the gap on Citroen in the manufacturers' race - the margin coming down from 23 points to 11.

Jari-Matti took three stages win in total and as it was his first podium since the Rally of Turkey back in June, he was over-the-moon.

"It feels fantastic to take a top three finish on gravel again. After a bad August this is my third strong rally and I really wanted this result," he stated. "The conditions were probably the worst I've seen and I can't explain how much water there was in the forests. We seemed to be aquaplaning all the time."

While Ford could celebrate though, Citroen were also busy spraying the champagne at the finish and third was good enough for Loeb to take the 2008 drivers' crown.

Loeb took it cautiously throughout, not that his event was without incident and he had a scare in the penultimate test, when he spun near the finish of SS28 and had to reverse.

"I really wanted to wrap up the title here in Japan to enable us to go into Wales Rally GB with a totally free mind," Seb reflected. "That made the weekend very long and very frustrating, and I have to say that it wasn't much fun. We did what we could to keep any thoughts about the championship out of our minds, but it wasn't easy. The title just seemed to loom larger after every stage, but it was well worth the wait in the end!

"This is a fantastic feeling. Along with Daniel [Elena - my co-driver] and everyone in the team, the objective we set ourselves for this year was to win another world crown, and it's tremendously satisfying to have met that target today."

Further down the order, Chris Atkinson was fourth for Subaru and given just how tough an event it was, he was content to take 5 championship points: "It's been a tricky weekend for everyone as the conditions were really difficult with a lot of rain and a lot of water standing in the road, and even at the pace we were going it was difficult to keep the car on the road," said the Aussie. "We were aquaplaning everywhere so it's good to get through and to finish the rally."

Per-Gunnar Andersson and Toni Gardemeister completed the top six, to give Suzuki a great result on its first home event with the SX4 WRC. In fact it is the team's best result this season and on the final day they both posted top-six times in every single stage.

P-G, who put in a major push, posting three second quickest times on day 3, to haul himself up from P7 to P5 was thrilled with his form: "I've really enjoyed this event and I hope that we've given all the Suzuki fans here something to remember! The car has been completely reliable and without the time we lost to stop and change a puncture yesterday, I think we could have been even closer to the leaders," he explained.

"This rally shows that all the hard work and development we have put in over the course of the year really works and it is a very encouraging sign for the future. After struggling a bit on the asphalt rallies, my confidence is back to full strength and I am looking forward to a solid season finish now."

Of the rest Matthew Wilson was seventh, backing off to make sure he got to the end on Sunday, but in the process losing two places, while Petter Solberg came in eighth.

Petter re-started under the SupeRally on day three and thanks to a hat-trick of stage wins hauled himself back up, even though he did break an exhaust manifold this morning and incurred a 30 second penalty.

"I must say that we have done a very good job and I'm very happy with my performance on Saturday and Sunday. We have improved the speed quite a lot and we have many stage wins and that's very important," said 'Hollywood'. "There really are a lot of good things to come from this rally and we need to continue to work with the car from exactly where it is now."

Munchi's Ford's Federico Villagra and Juho Hanninen completed the top ten, the latter also taking the win in the Production Car World Rally Championship category.

Hanninen snatched the P-WRC victory in the final stage, when Evgeny Novikov was slowed by a right rear suspension failure. Novikov, who had led the class pretty much throughout, had to console himself with second, while Toshi Arai was third.

Hanninen now takes the lead in the race for the P-WRC crown, six points up on Andreas Aigner, who is the only other contender still in with a chance of claiming the title.

"This victory is remarkable! I was concentrating on fighting Toshi for second place and only after the finish of the stage did I realise that I had won. I was told the news by the reporters, as I was not aware of Novikov's problem," said Hanninen. "It was a very tough rally, and I was happy to finish second - being first is a bonus and it was bad luck for Novikov. Now we go to Wales with two points extra advantage in the Championship."

In terms of retirements there were three main casualties - namely Stobart Ford's Francois Duval, Henning Solberg and Citroen's Dani Sordo.

Duval crashed out on day 1 in SS6 - an incident that hospitalised his co-driver, Patrick Pivato. Pivato, who suffered a fractured pelvis and fractured tibia, is currently in a 'stable' but 'critical condition'.

Sordo, also retired in SS6, but with a turbo problem. He re-started on Saturday and was tenth at the end of SS29 on Sunday. However he was withdrawn prior to the finish so that he can use a new engine in GB.

Henning for his part went out on two occasions, once on Saturday and again on Sunday, when he was unable to rejoin.

The WRC now returns to Europe for the traditional finale next month. The all-gravel Wales Rally GB is based in Cardiff and runs from December 4-7. It comprises 19 stages totalling 353.92 competitive kilometres.



Loading Comments...