Stobart M-Sport Ford’s Henning Solberg celebrated a return to form at Rally Japan, securing a stage win and moving up a place in the Drivers’ Championship Standings after a drama filled weekend at the Sapporo-based event.
The Norwegian’s last stage win was at Vodafone Rally de Portugal last year but Solberg and co-driver, llka Minor, finished Friday’s SS5 fastest out of the 70 FIA World Rally Championship crews competing in Japan. Later that day, the Stobart driver narrowly missed out on his second stage win when he completed SS8 second-fastest, just 0.8 seconds adrift of the fastest time produced by BP Ford Abu Dhabi’s Mikko Hirvonen.
Solberg’s seventh place finish piloting a Ford Focus RS WRC this weekend has moved the Norwegian up into eighth position in the Drivers’ Championship Standings.
Stobart team-mates, Matthew Wilson and co-driver Scott Martin, had difficulties managing the deep ruts in their Ford Focus RS WRC during Friday’s stages totalling 122.74 km. The 23-year-old suffered from a spin in SS4 and Wilson’s confidence was knocked further as a result of increasingly poor road conditions during the repeat afternoon pass. The driver, however, produced a fourth-fastest stage time round the Sapporo Dome Super Special Stage on Friday’s penultimate test and finished the opening day of Rally Japan eighth overall.
Saturday, however, proved troublesome for Wilson as less than 1km before the end of SS11, he took a corner wide and spun his Ford Focus RS WRC, dropping the front two wheels into a ditch. The car suffered no major damage, but the crew were unable to push the car back onto the road and were forced to retire. Wilson returned under SupeRally regulations for the final day but Saturday’s misfortune marked the end of a clear run as it was the first time since Rally Mexico in March the Cumbrian duo have been forced to SupeRally.
After finishing fourth at 2007’s Rally Japan Wilson had high hopes of equalling or beating his previous best result, but his exit from the 17.68 Nikara Short 1 stage ended the 23-year-old driver’s chances of finishing inside the top five. Despite a small spin on SS23, Wilson had a clear run on Sunday’s final eight stages and produced two top five stage times in the day’s penultimate tests. The Stobart driver successfully climbed the overall leaderboard from 31st position to finish 23rd overall.
Solberg has a trouble-free day on Sunday’s stages covering 55.68 km and the Norwegian finished SS24 third-fastest, only 0.9 seconds adrift of the fastest time produced by Sebastien Loeb. The Norwegian finished the rally in high spirits after moving up the Drivers’ Championship Standings to sit one point clear of Federico Villagra and ten points ahead of Kimi Räikkönen.
Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
“It’s been a frustrating weekend and I’m disappointed that I had to retire yesterday but it is some consolation to have made it to the end of the rally. When we went into the ditch yesterday, I honestly thought we would be able to reverse straight back out and lose only ten seconds but we just couldn’t get the car out. We tried locking the diffs but that just got us even more stuck – if only that had happened at an event like Finland as there would have plenty of spectators to help us push the car back onto the road. It’s been a difficult event– I’ve never driven stages with such deep ruts. The roads were in very bad condition on Friday afternoon and I just didn’t know what was the best technique to use – it felt like we were driving on rails. It’s disappointing not to finish higher up the leaderboard but, like I said, it’s good to have made it to the end and we’ll just have to try and score more points in France.”
Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said :
”The car has been working well today – we’ve had no problems but we had some issues with the set-up yesterday. It was similar to the problems we were experiencing at Rally New Zealand – we didn’t get to the bottom of what was causing it and I still don’t understand the problem now. But I am happy with my pace here this weekend – it was good to secure a stage win on Friday and we had some good times this afternoon too. I think I managed three top five stage times here this weekend so I’m pleased with my speed – I’ve definitely regained my confidence driving the [Ford] Focus on gravel. I’ll be back in the Ford Fiesta S2000 for Rally France in three weeks time but I don’t think there will be any problems – it’s not too difficult to swap between the two cars.”
Stobart M-Sport Ford Team Principal Malcolm Wilson said:
“It’s very unfortunate that Matthew had to retire yesterday – the car was undamaged but it was just unlucky that there weren’t more spectators close to the stage that could have helped the boys get back on the road. I know that he also had a tricky time when trying to manipulate the ruts that had been formed on Friday but I think it was valuable driving experience for Matthew – it’s important that our drivers can adapt to all types of road conditions so hopefully his experience from Rally Japan will hold him in good stead for the future. Henning has shown a good pace over the past few days – his stage win proves that he can keep up with the front-runners and hopefully we’ll see more strong performances from Henning in the season’s three remaining WRC rounds.”
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