The FIA World Rally Championship has always been welcomed by the cities and countries it visits but nowhere has there been a welcome as given by the 52,000 people in Obihiro that packed the city’s streets for the ceremonial start.
Huge Japanese wadaiko drums provided the rhythm to a soundtrack of fans cheering their favorite drivers from more than a dozen nationalities and in some ten different marques of car.
The biggest cheer was for a driver whose stage times would not be recorded, and whose result would never be noticed. Four times World Rally Champion Tommi Makinen – who is now retired – is driving the zero car for Rally Japan. The Finnish living legend was the first car over the ramp amidst clouds of smoke, a laser and light show and fireworks.
The usually reserved Japanese crowd could not contain their excitement and roaring crowds greeted Makinen and the 90 competing cars as they made their way down West 2 Street – a central road in downtown Obihiro.
Another crowd favourite was Petter Solberg. The reigning world rally champion drove down the street while standing up in his car and leaning out the open door, tossing his hat to the crowds and causing the Norwegian flags to stand out from the sea of banners along the road.
The rally action starts tomorrow when the drivers head to the stages north east of Obihiro before returning to the city for a special stage and servicing. The rally continues until Sunday and will finish at the Kita Aikoku service park on Sunday at 1600h.