Solberg cruises to victory

LIKE an old schoolmaster, one could hear the Citroen team boss Guy Frequelin repeatedly asking World Rally Championship leader Sebastian Loeb not to mess up his car.

STAN RAYAN

Petter Solberg (right) and his co-driver Philip Mills on their Subaru Impreza after winning the rally. — Pic. AP-

LIKE an old schoolmaster, one could hear the Citroen team boss Guy Frequelin repeatedly asking World Rally Championship leader Sebastian Loeb not to mess up his car. "Our aim is just to get to the finish. Keep things straight and simple," Frequelin kept saying. Just staying in the race seemed to be Loeb's theme at the recent Rally Japan, which made its debut in the World Championship. After five triumphs in the previous ten rounds of the Worlds, the Frenchman had gained a strong 29-point lead over his nearest rival in the drivers' standings. So, it was quite understandable when Loeb cut out the frills and opted for a safe and steady run.

With such a setting, Japan almost turned out to be a one-horse derby with Subaru's Petter Solberg cruising to an easy victory in what was supposed to be a mysterious terrain. Popularly known as `Hollywood', the effervescent Norwegian loves gravel, and there was plenty of the loose, slippery stuff on the Hokkaido Island for him to thrive on. He won 11 of the rally's 27 stages and only seemed to surrender stage wins on the final day when his lead over Loeb was comfortable enough for him to ease off. In the end, it was a happy drive for Subaru on its home soil in Japan with runner-up Loeb, a tarmac specialist, driving in more than a minute behind.

With the victory, Solberg regained a lot of lost confidence for he had a series of DNFs (did not finish) in the previous three WRC rounds, the last with a horrifying high-speed accident in Germany only a couple of weeks before Japan. "To win Japan's maiden WRC event in a Subaru... it's a dream," said the defending world champion, who jumped to second place from fourth in the drivers' standings this season. Loeb maintained his lead with 84 points with Solberg a good 30 points behind with five rounds remaining in the WRC.

Loeb, a tarmac specialist, was happy with his second place. "I knew Solberg was in fine form early, so I took things easy. With such a big lead in the standings, it would be stupid to attack. And the stages were sharp and slippery," said the Frenchman.

With an exciting course which included a `super special stage' with a tunnel under a small flyover, the Japanese made their WRC debut a memorable one. With two cars taking off together, the Satsunai super special, held at night and under lights on the first two days, was a thriller all the way and attracted some 50,000 fans. To keep the spectator interest alive, Japan also involved its local talent and organised special races for buggies and for four-wheeled bikes on some of the special `spectator' stages. With all the WRC glitz and glamour, the Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC), held simultaneously, proved to be a sideshow.

"That's the problem clubbing the two. There is a plan to run the APRC separately next season," said Antony Rodricks, the motorsport chief of the MRF Tyres team which has two drivers in the Asia Pacific.

Malaysian Karamjit Singh, driving a Proton Pert, won the APRC honours after a close tussle with MRF's Taguchi Katsuhiko. Unfortunately, Taguchi's Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8 packed up with engine problems with just two stages to go. He was running second then.

It is celebration time for Petter Solberg. -- Pic. REUTERS-

MRF's defending APRC champion, Armin Kremer had problems from the start, first with his electrical connections and then with his Mitsubishi Lancer's gearbox. Forced to go slow, the German finished fourth in Japan and also lost his lead (38 points) to Karamjit (48) in the APRC drivers' standings this season. Karamjit was just a point behind Kremer going into Japan, but after topping both the legs and the overall honours, he took home 16 points from APRC's fourth round.

For Karamjit, Japan proved to be lucky the third time, he was third the first year and did not finish the event last year. The 2002 Production Cars World champion who has now won three of the four APRC rounds this year, was thrilled with his huge championship lead.

"I want to attack in the next two rallies (in China in October and the MRF Rally in India in December) and win the drivers' championship. The Indian rally will be a sentimental one for me because my roots are in Chandigarh. I still have my cousins living there," said Karamjit.

Japan may be a newcomer to the WRC but it worked like a seasoned pro. For the visiting Indian media team too, Rally Japan was an eye-opener, especially the spectator safety aspect.

The few special stages which were open to spectators had a colourful, festival ambience, with huge tents and vast open spaces which offered a lovely view of the action, but which were still far away from the fast cars. And there were friendly, smiling Japanese faces everywhere.

Final standings

WRC: 1. Petter Solberg/Philip Mills (Subaru, 3 hrs, 43 mins, 50.6 secs), 2. Sebastian Loeb/Daniel Elena (Citroen, 3:45:03.9), 3. Markko Martin/Michael Park (Ford, 3:45:33.9), 4. Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen (Peugeot, 3:46:08.5), 5. Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti (Citroen, 3:46:21.6).

APRC: 1. Karamjit Singh/Allen Oh (Proton Pert, 2:26:15.7 secs), 2. Christopher Atkinson/Benjamin Atkinson (Suzuki, 2:27:24.3), 3. Geof Argyle/Steve Smith (Mitsubishi, 2:30:56.8), 4. Armin Kremer/Timo Gottschalk (Mitsubishi, 2:31:39.7), 5. Vesa Mikkola/Risto Niukkanen (Suzuki, 2:32:08.8).

WRC drivers standings (after 11 rounds): 1. Sebastian Loeb (84 pts), 2. Petter Solberg (54), 3. Markko Martin (53), 4. Carlos Sainz (50), 5. Marcus Gronholm (47).

APRC drivers standings (after 4 rounds): 1. Karamjit Singh (48 pts), 2. Armin Kremer (38), 3. Chris Atkinson (27), 4. Geof Argyle (25), 5. Taguchi Katsuhiko (22).