It was November, 2008 when Japan last hosted a round of the World Rally Championship. Sebastien Loeb clinched his record fifth world crown there – he returns with the rest of the WRC circus this week for round 10 of the 2010 season. Sapporo, located on the northerly island of Hokkaido, will play host to Loeb’s possible seventh consecutive title, providing he wins this week’s event and his closest rivals finish outside the top seven.

However, once rally gets underway with two passes through the Sapporo Dome’s superspecial stage on Thursday evening (September 9), Citroen pilot Loeb looks to drive for the title rather than gun for his sixth win of the campaign. Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen will be a firm favorite to bag his ninth victory at world championship level using Pirelli tires, which are supplied as standard to the WRC under a three-year agreement with motorsport’s world governing body, the FIA.

“I want to finish the season as well as I can so for sure I will try everything to win Rally Japan,” said Hirvonen, the 30-year-old from Finland. “The world championship title is not possible (for me) anymore, but with four rallies to go there are two events where I really think I can challenge for the victory, starting with Japan. While it is over for me for the drivers’ title, Ford can still win the manufacturers’ title and to do that getting wins is vitally important.”

Hirvonen has triumphed on the WRC’s last two visits to Japan, taking victory in 2007 and 2008. “It’s a rally I really like,” said Hirvonen. “It’s similar to Finland, Great Britain and Australia in that you have fast and flowing stages through forests. But it’s so unique in other ways because of the culture and the incredible history. Rallying might not be known in the whole country but the fans that come to the event are so fanatical and enthusiastic. For drivers it makes it very enjoyable and gives you a good feeling.”

Rally Japan first joined the world championship in 2004 when Petter Solberg swept to victory in a Subaru Impreza WRC using Pirelli tires. Marcus Gronholm, drove a Peugeot 307 WRC and made it two wins out of two for Pirelli the following season before Hirvonen added a third victory in 2008.

Pirelli will supply its soft compound Scorpion gravel tire to the 55 crews taking part in four-wheel drive machinery in Japan. The compound is designed to provide increased grip in cooler temperatures and in damp conditions, which have been a factor on the event in the past.

Priority 1 and 2 drivers will receive an allowance of 30 Scorpion tires plus six for the pre-event shakedown, while other crews in four-wheel drive cars get 20 Scorpion tires for the rally and five for shakedown. The tires were transported by boat from Italy to Japan during the summer.

“Rally Japan is not one of the most demanding on tires because the surface is not abrasive like on some other gravel rallies,” said Pirelli’s senior WRC tire engineer Matteo Braga. “Cold temperatures and rain are always a possibility in Japan and with rain you can get some mud and it’s possible some ruts can form. There can also be a problem of rocks being pulled onto the road for the second pass, which creates a risk of tire damage because wheel rims can get broken, but it is not a big risk.”

While the stages on Friday and Saturday will be familiar to the bulk of the competitors, Sunday’s gravel stages are all new. To add to the challenge, there is no midday service on day three of the rally, meaning competitors will have to adopt a degree of caution through the six forest stages before they return to Sapporo for the final two runs through the Sapporo Dome superspecial.

Rally Japan is round seven of the of the Production Car World Rally Championship, for two-liter turbocharged Group N cars, and round eight of the Super 2000 World Rally Championship, which uses normally aspirated two-liter cars. Pirelli will supply its soft compound Scorpion tires to both support championships, thereby underlining the performance and efficiency of the Italian rubber on a wide range of machinery.

Although Rally Japan is not part of the Pirelli Star Driver program’s six-event schedule, Hayden Paddon, one of the training scheme’s five young talents, will be competing in Japan as part of his individual PWRC effort. Rather than using his familiar Pirelli-liveried Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, Paddon will switch to his privately-run Lancer Evolution IX for his first appearance on the event.

Rally Japan is one of the shortest events on the WRC schedule with a competitive distance of 188.611 miles over 26 special stages. Action gets underway at 1840 hours local time on Thursday September 9, with the ceremonial finish taking place at the Tsukisamu Dome in Sapporo at 1500 hours on Sunday September, 12.

Pirelli’s Rally Japan in numbers

3: Pirelli victories on Rally Japan
36: number of Scorpion soft compound tires available for use by P1 and P2 drivers
25: number of Scorpion soft compound tires available for use by all other 4WD crews
6: World titles won by Sebastien Loeb
2: Production Car world titles won by Japan’s Toshi Arai
6852: number of islands making up the archipelago of Japan
127 million: Japan’s population
540,000: number of fans who attended Rally Japan in 2008
43,000: capacity of the Sapporo Dome, venue of the rally’s superspecial stage