Rallying: Solberg's improved Subaru holds off challenge of Loeb

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Petter Solberg hailed a much-improved Subaru after seizing the lead of the Rally of Japan in front of his team's home fans.

The Norwegian has suffered a lack of pace for most of the season compared to Sébastien Loeb's Citroën but turned the tables yesterday. He battled early on with rookie team-mate Chris Atkinson for the lead before the Australian made way for two of world rallying's established stars.

But even under attack from championship leader Loeb and Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm, Solberg was able to establish a clear lead at the end of day one.

Solberg, who leads Loeb by 22.9 seconds, said: "It hasn't been this good for a long time. The car has improved in many areas. I won't tell you precisely what we have done - you'll have to talk to my engineers.

"We have better traction and braking but we still have to drive very precisely. It's very, very difficult. There's still a long way to go, though, and anything can happen. It has been a big fight with Sébastien this afternoon and Marcus is not far off either. OK, I've got 20 seconds, but that is nothing."

Loeb needs only six points to ensure consecutive world titles and is well placed, having crept into second place courtesy of two stage wins. He turned down the chance to win the title in Wales two weeks ago when Gronholm withdrew after the death of his Peugeot team-mate Markko Martin's co-driver, Michael Park.

The Frenchman deliberately took time penalties to drop from first to third, delaying his title celebrations until a happier time.

Gronholm was back in action for Peugeot this weekend, with Daniel Carlsson standing in for Martin as his team-mate, and he proved to be a threat. The Finn is 12 seconds down on Loeb after the top three streaked clear of their rivals, although Gronholm is not expecting victory.

"I've not had a brilliant feeling today," he said. "We lost time on the penultimate stage when the tread came off a tyre towards the start of the stage. The car was all over the place and it was very difficult to control. I'm pleased to get to the end and I will do my best to push some more tomorrow, although the truth is that I am not feeling very confident."

Atkinson's early-morning form leaves him in fourth place, although he has lost nearly a minute on team leader Solberg. Harri Rovanpera and Gianluigi Galli are fifth and sixth respectively while the second Citroën of François Duval is seventh. Roman Kresta is eighth for Ford.

In the production class, Manchester's Natalie Barratt was 10 minutes off the pace after seven stages but still has a chance of championship points from ninth place. Guy Wilks is 24th overall in his Suzuki.