Solberg leads the Rally in Japan

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src=' ' class='caption'> World champion Petter Solberg bounced back from his crash in Germany to grab the lead on the opening day of the Rally Japan on Hokkaido on Friday.

updated: February 25, 2007 10:08 IST
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The northern Japanese island of Hokkaido is playing host to the inaugural Rally Japan, with the first eight stages taking place on Friday. Much was expected of Citroen's championship leader Sebastien Loeb of France. He started the rally 29 points ahead of second-placed Markko Martin in a Ford, with the knowledge that the championship is his to lose. Providing Loeb doesn't make any big mistakes, the Frenchman should have done enough to hold off his rivals. There are, though, still five more rallies after the Japanese event, and much could happen. On Friday, Loeb was first on the road, looking for a solid opening day performance to set himself up nicely. That's exactly what he got, returning the second fastest time of the day, 12.3 seconds slower than world champion Petter Solberg. Good start Finland's Marcus Gronholm is an experienced campaigner and was looking for a good start in Japan. The Fin suffered the indignity of crashing out on the very first corner in the previous rally in Germany, and was keen to make amends as soon as possible. Its been a poor season for Gronholm, with only one victory in the Peugeot 307, but the new Japanese course was expected to suit his style. Despite some tyre trouble, Gronholm responded with the third fastest time, 18 seconds behind Solberg and less than six seconds behind Loeb. The Fin started the rally in fifth place in the standings, and a good finish could see him climb a few places. Another man looking to advance his position was Estonian Markko Martin. The Ford driver knew that he couldn't let rival Loeb get further ahead in the standings, and Martin was well aware that a repeat of his fourth place in Germany wasn't go to be enough to keep the pressure on the Frenchman. But fourth fastest was what Martin had to settle for after the opening day in Japan, leaving him over a minute behind leader Solberg. Veteran Carlos Sainz finished one place further adrift. The Spaniard is currently in a battle for overall second place with Martin, with just one point separating the two drivers, going into the rally in Japan. Sainz and Martin are sure to continue their battle through the weekend. Solberg bounces back But the man who everyone is chasing is the reigning world champion from Norway, Petter Solberg. The Subaru man has retired from the last three rallies and was fortunate to escape injury in Germany when his car hit a concrete block and then rolled repeatedly in the biggest crash of his career. Solberg admitted that, following the crash, his confidence had suffered. But, the Norwegian relaxed after the first four stages in Japan and asked British co-driver Phil Mills to drive the 99 kilometre road stretch back to service at Obihiro. Considering the impact of a heavy crash on a driver's confidence, Solberg's performance on Friday was particularly good, as he returned a time of one hour, 28 minutes and 59.9 seconds. That was good enough for a 12.3 seconds lead over Loeb. Loeb leads the championship with 76 points, 29 clear of Martin, with five rallies to go after Japan.