Petter Solberg’s World Rally Championship defense was crumbling.
A monster shunt on the previous round in Germany was his third retirement in as many rallies, leaving him 32 points down on title favorite Sébastien Loeb with six of the 16 rallies left to run.
But if there was an attitude that defined Solberg’s time in the WRC it was to never give up, and although he would ultimately lose out on the 2004 title, his fightback after Germany was superb with three statement wins on the bounce.
He started with what Prodrive’s David Lapworth called the single most important rally Subaru had ever done: Rally Japan.
Although French manufacturers Peugeot and Citroën were beginning to make the WRC their own, it was Japanese marques that dominated throughout the ’90s. Rally fever was therefore massive in Japan, but locals had never seen their heroes up close and personal before.
Solberg’s jovial toss of his cap to the adoring crowd as he crossed the start ramp at the ceremonial start was the first example of how popular this event would be, and was a stark contrast to the steely and determined drive that would soon follow on the stages.
Solberg wasn’t just quickest, he was in a different league. Completing the opening Yam Wakka test in 15m03.5s, the closest anyone could get to Solberg was Loeb – but the championship leader was some 10.7 seconds slower.
Another dominant stage win on SS2 earned Solberg a mammoth 18.1s lead – firmly silencing anyone that doubted him in the wake of his Germany crash. But while Solberg prospered, other frontrunners struggled
Markko Märtin won the season’s other new event, Rally México, but couldn’t haul himself into the race in Japan. Lamenting pacenotes that were “really, really horrible”, the Ford ace was already almost 40s down after the first four stages, but was typically deadpan about the situation.
“I don’t know who made them,” he quipped. Märtin would eventually finish the rally in third spot.
Initially, that was a position held by Peugeot’s Marcus Grönholm. He was jostling for second with Loeb, holding that position as the crews headed for their first service halt.
Already though, this was all a sideshow for the runaway leader.
“It’s going very well,” said Solberg, stating the obvious. “Much better than expected.
“It’s very fun, but it’s very difficult out there. But it’s going the right way.”
It would be a more complicated afternoon for the reigning world champion though. Selecting a compound of Pirelli that was too soft, and encountering deer on stage six, meant Solberg began to leak time to Loeb, who had quickly disposed of Grönholm in their fight for second place.
The deficit wasn’t severe enough to cost Solberg his lead, but with three stages wins across the five tests it’s clear who the afternoon belonged to as Loeb loomed large in Solberg’s rear mirror – lying just 12.7s behind at the first overnight halt.
The narrow stages of day one gave way to much wider, much faster tests on the second leg – but that shift wasn’t about to upset Solberg’s rhythm. Loeb was the only driver to have recced the Japan stages the previous year, yet it was Solberg who adapted to the new terrain best once more.
Punching in fastest time after fastest time, Solberg scampered clear in his Subaru – converting that 12.7s overnight advantage into a 46.4s lead by midday service. If anybody wanted to deny Solberg this Japan win, they were really going to have to work for it.
And instead, Loeb found himself refocusing on Grönholm behind rather than Solberg ahead. Grönholm briefly nipped ahead after Saturday morning’s second stage, Nupri Pake, but as was so often the case throughout 2004 with the troubled 307 WRC, gearbox gremlins began to set the double world champion back.
Shipping north of a minute on SS13, patience was wearing thin; cue another classic stage-end quote.
“I have only one gear,” he said.
A jump-start penalty on the start of Cup Kamuy rubbed salt into the wounds as Grönholm struggled to get his Peugeot off the line in third.
The result was Grönholm had slid to fifth by the time he returned to the safety of service. But there was no safety granted from the world’s media, who wanted answers as to why the 307 kept failing.
“Don’t ask me,” Grönholm responded. “You have to ask the engineers or management.”
So they did.
“Of course we have a big problem,” admitted technical director and future Hyundai team principal Michel Nandan.
“Yesterday we had a problem with Harri [Rovanperä] where he lost one gear, and today with Marcus the gearbox was stuck on third gear, so maybe a problem [that’s] related. We don’t know yet, but for sure it’s strange.”
There isn't really any pressure today, there's only the 135 million Japanese supporting us!Phil Mills
Trying to find similarities between the mood at Peugeot and the mood at Subaru was almost impossible.
“It was good, no problems at all,” shrugged Solberg. “We had a good tire choice, went for a small attack of course but I’ve got a good lead now and I’m quite pleased for that.”
Loeb wasn’t feeling too motivated to cause Solberg any hassle either. Second place would do just fine for his championship challenge, but there was a brief scare as Loeb spun his Xsara and was lucky not to hit anything solid.
If it wasn’t the plan already, weighing up the options Loeb realized it was far better to consolidate the eight points that he had rather than gamble them for 10.
Not that that slowed Solberg. He kept up his intensity and powered over a minute clear by the end of Saturday – leaving a nation on tenterhooks as he looked to secure a home win for his team in front of an extremely passionate fanbase.
Grönholm didn’t have such an accolade to shoot for, but he started the afternoon with anger. Winning his first stage of the weekend, Grönholm immediately shot past Carlos Sainz into fourth spot.
But despite carrying a Christmas tree on the front of his Peugeot on the repeat pass of Kimun Kamuy, there’d be no gift for Grönholm as he lost his fourth place back to Sainz, and the Citroën driver pulled clear for the rest of the afternoon.
François Duval had been hoping to have his say in the developing fight for fourth between the two world champions, but it all ended for him on Sunday’s second stage.
On a weekend where Duval was released from his contract due to uncertainty at Ford – team principal Malcolm Wilson had only been on Japanese soil for six hours before having to fly back home to the UK again for meetings about the 2005 budget – and was competing with a stand-in co-driver, Philippe Droeven, his Focus RS WRC ’04 ended up backwards sliding down a ditch.
“The note was too late,” rued Duval, “and the left corner before this corner it was a long, long corner but it’s not long, it was just a slight corner and we went off the road. It’s bad luck for me.”
Although Ford hoped to keep Duval, he would eventually decide to partner Loeb at Citroën for the following season where a torrid run of results would be down to far more than simply bad luck.
Out front and himself only some “bad luck, which I have had many times this year when leading” away from victory, Solberg looked a touched stress at times. Moments with wife Pernilla and son Oliver helped, but he was burdened by some bad pacenotes on Sunday morning.
In reality that counted for very little. Solberg’s lead was so great that his name didn’t need to be appearing at the top of the timesheets anymore, it just needed to remain at the top of the leaderboard.
“Well, as somebody else just said, there isn’t really any pressure today, there’s only the 135 million Japanese supporting us today,” laughed co-driver Phil Mills, sarcastically. “There is no pressure if you put it like that!”
But what Solberg and Mills were about to achieve was nothing short of extraordinary. Just two weeks earlier, they suffered the biggest crash of their careers with that scary shunt in Germany; yet they drove with such a purpose in Japan that you simply wouldn’t have known.
Crossing the 27th and final finish-line of the inaugural WRC Rally Japan, the release of emotion was immediate: Solberg raising his arm and letting out his usual scream of jubilation, grabbing Mills’ arm too as his co-driver chuckled down the intercom.
“Not a bad weekend, eh?” asked Mills.
“So happy, Phil! After Germany we’re right back on the top again.”
Hanging out of his Impreza and tickling the throttle as Solberg rolled into service, it was clear how much this win meant to absolutely everybody.
“I must say it was better than expected,” reflected an emotional Solberg. “After the crash in Germany, I must admit that I never thought I could come up so quick. It was a horrible accident and Phil has been absolutely excellent, even better than before… oi, oi, oi.”
Twelve months later, Solberg would discover just what it felt like to have victory whisked away from him when on the second-to-last stage, a rock lay menacingly on the racing line and Solberg could do nothing to avoid it – breaking his suspension and retiring on the spot.
That’s one that will live long in Solberg’s memory, but it’s the events of 2004 that the home crowd prefers to remember.
It’s over to Toyota now to deliver Japan its first home win in almost 20 years.