After basking in the glory of PROTON’s victorious home run on July’s Malaysian Rally, the two factory Satria-Neo S2000s – driven by Alister McRae (Scotland) and Juha Salo (Finland) – will head for Japan and the Hokkaido Rally this week.
The Obihiro-based event is the penultimate round of the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship, a series dominated by PROTON Motorsports last season. The Malaysian manufacturer heads north in the Far East with real confidence after not only winning in Johor, but also taking a second victory from four rounds of the Super 2000 World Rally Championship with P-G Andersson. The Swede, who has now finished first or second on the last three SWRC rallies with PROTON, will not compete in Japan due to a clash between the Hokkaido Rally and Wales Rally GB, the latest SWRC encounter on which he drives a Satria-Neo S2000.
McRae and Salo still make a formidable partnership. McRae won the APRC drivers’ title with PROTON last year and is no stranger to the team, but seven-time Finnish champion Salo made his debut on Rally Finland last month, scoring a podium result in the process.
As the name would suggest, this week’s Hokkaido Rally runs entirely on Japan’s northern-most island. Hokkaido is home to 5.6 million people, but the mountainous and forested landscape is quite a change from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and the capital-hosting island of Honshu.
While the rally runs in the shadow of two mountain ranges, the stages themselves are located in the Tokachi basin, which means little elevation or undulation along the generally fast and flowing, but narrow gravel roads. This is the 11th year in succession that Japan has hosted a round of the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship and the rally remains rooted in Obihiro city, with the service park alongside the superspecial stage in Kita-Aikoku.
Temperatures are expected to peak around 20 degrees with long periods of early autumn sunshine – Obihiro shares a similar latitude to that of the Italian capital Rome.
The event starts – and finishes – with a run around a crowd-pleasing superspecial stage on the outskirts of Obihiro.
Alister McRae said:
“We need to win this week, there’s no doubt about that. Yes, Atko [Chris Atkinson, APRC championship leader] is missing and not competing on this rally, but his team-mate Gaurav Gill has, for me, been just as quick as Chris this year and he’ll still be just as big a threat in Japan. If we hadn’t had a puncture, we could have won this rally last year and that’s the aim this time. I like the roads out there. Okay, they do get a wee bit rutted after the second and third pass, but they’re still very challenging. They’re nice and quick, but at the same time they’re narrow and twisty.
“The work the team has done on the car really showed a good step when we won last time out in Malaysia and the new set-up will help here if the weather turns wet. If it does rain, we’ll be able to run the car softer to get better traction. Japan is a great country, with really enthusiastic fans and the chance to show those spectators what the PROTON is capable of is really important.”
Juha Salo said:
“I have competed in Asia previously, but this will be the first time for me on these roads. I am very excited to go to the rally and to represent the PROTON team. The Satria-Neo S2000 is a great car to drive, but last time I was in it, maybe it took me a little longer than I expected to get used to the car after so long in driving Group N. Now I have a good idea of what is to come and I am really looking forward to joining Alister in Japan.”
MEM team principal Chris Mellors said:
“We’ve got to look to make some good points in Japan and we’ve had the pace to win the Hokkaido Rally before and that’s what Al’s going there for this time. As for Juha, I think the roads will suit him well. He might not know the roads well, but coming from Finland he’s well acquainted with the quick stuff. We saw last time out in Finland that the changes we’d made to the car earlier in the summer worked well on the gravel and they will certainly help give the team and extra edge in Ohiro this week.”
Round: 5/6, FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship
Based: Obihiro, Japan
Liaison distance: 782.06km
Competitive distance: 221.46km
Total distance: 1003.52km
Pre-event press conference: Media Centre (Friday September 14, 1430)
Post-event press conference: Media Centre (Sunday September 16, 1730)
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