Colin McRae and Nicky Grist delivered a stunning performance during a thrilling shoot-out on the final speed test to secure third place for the Ford Martini World Rally Team on the Swedish International Rally today. The British pair fired their Ford Focus World Rally Car to fastest time on the snowy and icy forest roads to edge out Thomas Rådstrom by just 1.2 seconds.
The podium place ended a personal nightmare for McRae and Grist who had not finished a rally since last May's Tour of Corsica - a run of nine straight retirements. The result was greeted like a victory by Ford Martini team management, even more so after the tense finale to the four-day rally, second round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
McRae and Rådstrom entered the final 21km Hagfors stage split by just four-tenths of a second after the Swede had eaten into the 31-year-old Scot's slender 6.8 second overnight advantage to move ahead. McRae and Grist even removed their thick padded jackets and drinks bottles from the Focus in an attempt to save weight and eke out an advantage for the final test. It worked as McRae was quickest to move back into third.
"We took everything out of the car except me and Nicky!" joked McRae as he arrived at the final service park amid emotional scenes within the team. "After all our problems this is just as good as winning a rally - I was so relieved to see the finish line of the last stage. I was sitting behind the wheel trying to keep my concentration and praying the finish was around the next corner.
"Now that this weight has been lifted from us the whole team can relax and concentrate on the season ahead. We have much still to do in developing the Focus but our total of four fastest times on the rally was bettered only by the winner and that gives a clear sign that we're heading forward," he added.
After two days made remarkable by a lack of snow on an event regarded as the championship's only true winter rally, the white stuff finally made an appearance today. Overnight snow left roads with a 2.5cm covering in parts and added to the difficulty for McRae and Grist over today's 96km of action.
"I'm so delighted for Colin after all he's been through," said Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson. "It was tremendous for him to have a rally without problems and after Carlos Sainz's second place in Monte Carlo last month, it gives us a real platform on which to build for the rest of the season.
"Colin showed yesterday and today that his confidence is back, typified by the fact that in a straight fight on the last stage he beat Thomas, who we know is so strong on home ground. Colin's smiling again now and we must ensure we keep a smile on everyone's faces for the rest of the year," added Wilson.
Martin Whitaker, European director of Ford Racing, joined in the praise. "It's a crucial result for the team and especially Colin. He drove brilliantly in an incredibly tense battle and this has done much to restore his confidence after a difficult period. It's a result for which everyone in the team has worked tirelessly.
News from our Rivals
Marcus Gronholm's victory was his first in the world championship and Peugeot's first at this level since Timo Salonen won Britain's RAC Rally in November 1986. Despite pressure from world champion Tommi Makinen (Mitsubishi), Gronholm was able to pace himself throughout the day. Makinen eased away from the third place fight, despite hitting a rock on this morning's first test, to extend his championship lead. Rådstrom (Toyota) posted three fastest times from today's five speed tests but it was not quite enough to repeat his third place of last year. Team-mates Richard Burns and Juha Kankkunen (Subaru) claimed the final drivers' points, the Briton quickest on the day's longest stage. Didier Auriol's (Seat) slim hopes of scoring a manufacturers' point for his team ended when he slipped from eighth to 10th. Hyundai celebrated the debut appearance of its Accent World Rally Car by guiding both Kenneth Eriksson and Alister McRae to the finish.
After Sweden's ice, the FIA World Rally Championship moves to hotter climes later this month. Kenya's Safari Rally 25 - 27 February is one of the season's classics - the longest, toughest and hottest rally in the series. Ford will be hoping to emulate last year's triumph when McRae gave the Focus World Rally Car its first victory.
Final positions 1. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 3hr 20min 33.3sec 2. T Makinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 3hr 20min 40.1sec 3. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 3hr 20min 47.0sec 4. T Rådstrom/T Thorner S Toyota Corolla 3hr 20min 48.2sec 5. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 3hr 21min 08.3sec 6. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 3hr 23min 20.9sec 7. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 3hr 24min 05.2sec 8. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 3hr 25min 41.6sec 9. M Martin/M Park EE Toyota Corolla 3hr 25min 47.3sec 10 D Auriol/D Giraudet F Seat Cordoba 3hr 25min 49.2sec
2000 FIA World Rally Championship (after round 2 of 14) Drivers 1. T Makinen 16pts 2. M Gronholm 10pts 3. C Sainz 6pts 4. J Kankkunen 5pts 5. C McRae 4pts 6. T Gardemeister 3pts 6. T Rådstrom 3pts
Manufacturers 1. Mitsubishi 18pts 2. Peugeot 11pts 3. Ford 10pts 4. Subaru 9pts 5. Seat 3pts 6. Skoda 1pt