Subaru won the inaugural Rally Japan on Sunday when its lead driver, defending world champion Petter Solberg, finished more than a minute ahead of title rival Sébastien Loeb.

Subaru won the inaugural Rally Japan on Sunday when its lead driver, defending world champion Petter Solberg, finished more than a minute ahead of title rival Sébastien Loeb.


Although the Norwegian’s victory keeps him in contention to defend his title, Solberg remains 30 points adrift with only five events left on the schedule.


"I'm so happy to have won here!" Solberg said. "It's such a special event for Subaru that to come here and win in Japan on the first attempt is almost like a dream come true."


The 2004 Rally Japan was the first WRC event held on Japanese soil and thus an important event for Subaru, Mitsubishi and Suzuki (the latter in the WRC Junior championship).


"We've never had so much fan support on a rally, and it is a big honour for me to win on Subaru's home soil here in Japan," Solberg continued. "To the spectators who came to watch us out in the stages, I hope you had a good time watching us, it's been a fantastic rally and I hope we can win it again next year!"


At the finish, Solberg was 1:13 ahead of Citroën’s Loeb, and also had a 11-6 edge in stage victories over the 27 special stages.


On the tight gravel of Hokkaido, Japan's northern island, the Frenchman appeared to be at a relative disadvantage. "I liked the stages despite the fact they are very narrow," Loeb said.


"What's difficult is to switch from the very slow pace on the recce to the fast one of the rally. It's a good event which could be improved if the time spent on road sections were reduced," the Frenchman added.


Markko Martin took third, 30 seconds behind of Loeb, in his Ford Focus. The Estonian had a difficult first day, with co-driver Michael Park having to rewrite pace notes on the fly. With the corner speeds marked inconsistently, Martin had to drive conservatively, and he stood only fifth after the first leg.


"The last day was much easier than the first and I'm frustrated that the notes were bad to start with," Martin explained at the conclusion of the rally. "But third is still a good result."


While Solberg has passed Martin in the points standings with the victory, the Estonian is only a single point behind, and 31 points off Loeb's total, ready to take advantage should the usually consistent Citroën driver falter in the remaining rallies.


In fourth place was a disappointed Marcus Gronholm, who has had a difficult 2004 campaign with mechanical gremlins plaguing his Peugeot 307 WRC. This time it was the gearbox - not for the first time this year - as the Finn's car was at times stuck in third gear.


"It's been a difficult rally, where we just had to take as many points as possible," Gronholm said. "On the first day we were on the same pace as the leaders, but unfortunately we dropped back with a few problems on day two. The final leg was quite exciting for me as we had a big battle for fourth place. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could."


Gronholm had held down second place, ahead of Loeb, on the second day, until his gearbox malfunctioned on SS13, losing him well over a minute on that stage alone. After that, all he could do was to attack Carlos Sainz, in the second Citroen, for fourth place.


And as the cars finished the final stage, it was Gronholm in fourth and Sainz fifth, in the battle of the WRC veterans. Sainz was not able to match Gronholm's determination and pace on the final day, and finished 13.1 seconds behind his Peugeot rival.