Petter Solberg held his lead to the end of day one of Rally Japan, and will start Saturday with a 9.4sec advantage over Mikko Hirvonen.
The Fords had a strong afternoon, with Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala winning all three full-length stages, taking Hirvonen to second ahead of Citroen's Sebastien Ogier, who admitted he was not enjoying the heavily rutted stages on the second pass. Fourth-placed Latvala closed to within 1.1sec of the Frenchman. But although Ford made gains, Solberg still had enough in hand to keep his independent Citroen at the head of the field.
"It's been a great year in a way, and now everything is coming together – me, the car, all the details," said Solberg, who is still suffering from flu. "The stages are terrible but I'm really happy with what I've done so far. The times are there, now we've got to do with rally with no major problems."
Dani Sordo fell away from the podium battle as he suspected his Citroen Junior car was developing a transmission issue, but remained a comfortable fifth as Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) continued to struggle for speed. The world champion ended the day almost a minute off the lead.
"It was a really difficult day for me," said Loeb. "I have no answer. I've been pushing hard. The road position is the only thing – I will have a better road position but I'm not sure how much of the difference is the road position and how much is my driving. We'll see tomorrow."
In the other classes, Jari Ketomaa and Patrik Flodin have established healthy leads in the S2000 and Production contests, respectively.
Ketomaa's nearest rival Martin Prokop was delayed by intercom issues and coming across Khalid Al Qassimi's big crash on the first run through Iwanke Long, while Flodin trailed Toshi Arai until the local favorite crashed on Sikot, blocking the stage and causing a half-hour delay to the afternoon schedule.
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Petter Solberg Citroen 1h13m31.2s
2. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 9.4s
3. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 21.3s
4. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 22.4s
5. Dani Sordo Citroen + 36.5s
6. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 54.5s
7. Henning Solberg Ford + 1m22.2s
8. Matthew Wilson Ford + 3m16.9s
9. Federico Villagra Ford + 3m46.5s
10. Kimi Raikkonen Citroen + 4m03.1s