WRC

Gronholm back on top in Rally Finland

Gronholm back on top in Rally Finland

It had been a long time in the World Rally Championship wilderness for Marcus Gronholm and Peugeot, but the veteran Finn returned to the top step of the podium in his home event, taking his fifth Rally Finland victory in six years with a...

It had been a long time in the World Rally Championship wilderness for Marcus Gronholm and Peugeot, but the veteran Finn returned to the top step of the podium in his home event, taking his fifth Rally Finland victory in six years with a convincing margin.

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen.
Photo by Marlboro Peugeot Total.
"It's been the perfect rally for us," the normally reserved Gronholm beamed at the end of the event. "We knew from the start that we could fight to win, but it was only last night, when we got a one-minute lead that we knew for sure that we were going to do it."

The two-time WRC champion now ties Tommi Makinen for the number of Rally Finland wins -- although Makinen scored all five of his victories in consecutive years. Gronholm still has some work to do to set an outright win record, as rally legends Markku Alen and Hannu Mikkola have six and seven wins in the event, respectively.

Gronholm was hell-bent to take victory for Peugeot in Finland from the start, and set a torrid pace on every leg. The unintended victim of the pace, though, was his co-pilot Timo Rautiainen, who injured his back on one of the heavy jumps on the Vellipohja stage on Friday. The duo lost time initially as Rautiainen couldn't read the notes for the rest of the stage -- and even afterwards Gronholm had to drive more carefully.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
"It's not been an easy rally," he explained. "We were always pushing hard and I was very worried about Timo. To avoid injuring his back any more I was definitely backing off over some of the bigger bumps, which cost us time."

Sebastien Loeb, the defending champion and the winner of the last six WRC events, claimed second for Citroen, 1:06 adrift of Gronholm. Loeb effectively lost the rally on yesterday's second leg, dropping 30 seconds back from Gronholm's furious pace, and then losing another 35 seconds to a puncture on leg two's final stage.

"There was nothing I could do," Loeb summarized. "Marcus was simply faster. You have to know when to accept being beaten by an opponent of his calibre on his home ground. We put in a very good run -- but he put in a flawless performance."

Markko Martin and Michael Park.
Photo by Marlboro Peugeot Total.
In spite of the second-place finish, Loeb is now another step closer to a second WRC championship. He now has a 28-point edge on his closest challenger Gronholm and only six events remaining on the calendar. Three of those are tarmac events, too, something that Gronholm has yet to win outright.

"We gave him a very close run and we come away with eight valuable points," Loeb summed up the weekend. "In championship terms, this is an excellent result... but it's not a victory. Whenever a winning run like this comes to an end -- even if you know it will stop one day -- is bound to be a little bit sad."

There is no room for complacency in the Peugeot camp, as one swallow does not a spring make. "Victory has been pretty close before, but our car and tires have been a little behind," Gronholm explained. "Although it's fantastic to win here, we still have to keep working hard to improve the car because Finland is not really typical of most events."

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.
Photo by Ford Motor Company.
As for Loeb, the French rally ace was an easy 29 seconds ahead of the third-placed driver, Markko Martin, in the second works Peugeot entry. While Martin wasn't thrilled with coming in third as such -- he did win the event in 2003, after all -- he was happier with his 307 WRC than he has been all year.

"I'm very pleased," the Estonian explained. "Not so much with third place but more with the fact that we have been in a genuinely competitive situation here in Finland. This is down to many things, but above all the adjustments to the suspension have helped me a lot. For the first time I felt really confident with the car!"

While Martin wasn't able to challenge Loeb for second, he did help achieve what the team was hoping for in the manufacturers' title chase. With Gronholm's win and Martin's third place, Peugeot scored a near-maximum 16 points in the rally.

With the second Citroen driver, Francois Duval, only taking one point for eighth place, Peugeot moved ahead of Citroen in the manufacturers' title chase and back into a slim lead.

Petter Solberg took advantage of another puncture yesterday, this one to Ford's Toni Gardemeister, to score a fourth place for Subaru, edging out Mikko Hirvonen for the spot. The three had battled throughout Saturday for that position, and Gardemeister held the edge until the penultimate stage of the day -- when a tire ripped to shreds, and also shredded the Finn's hopes for a fourth position.

That incident had dropped Gardemeister to seventh, but he charged like a bull on today's morning stages, winning SS18 (Kuohu 1) and coming third on SS19 (Kruununpera 1) to take sixth from Harri Rovanpera.

"I attacked hard on the first two stages and that was enough to get by Rovanpera," the young Ford pilot recounted. "After that I was able to cruise because he was too far back to worry me. I had a tyre vibration on the second stage so I drove carefully to avoid any problems -- fast but safe."

"I'm pleased to score points for Ford but disappointed from a personal view," he continued. "Until yesterday evening, I was comfortable in fourth."

Solberg had no complaints with being handed fourth place on a platter, though. The Norwegian veteran had had minor difficulties with his car on the first two days, but he picked up his pace toward the end, and was, in the end, able to easily defend his position against Hirvonen, who had threatened on Saturday.

"After the bad landing on Friday and the split brake pipe yesterday I have to be happy with fourth," Solberg conceded. "I tried to push so hard and we made a number of changes to improve the setup yesterday and today, and I was happier with how we finished today."

Hirvonen, who made up significant ground on Solberg yesterday, simply ran out of time and stages to try to catch the Norwegian. However, his fifth place, along with Gardemeister's sixth, made up another solid points haul for Ford, who are now 10 points ahead of Subaru in the manufacturers' title quest.

"The fight today with Petter was one of the best battles of my career," Hirvonen smiled at the finish. "The team sent us Petter's split times during the stages so I knew exactly what I had to do, but unfortunately I couldn't quite manage it."

While Hirvonen is quite familiar with the roads around Jyvaskyla, it was his first opportunity to run Rally Finland in a works WRC entry. "It has been a fantastic opportunity to drive for the Ford team and the pace has been high all weekend," he explained. "Before the rally started my target was to set times that were close to Marcus Gr?nholm and Sebastien Loeb and I did achieve that."

Rovanpera, sixth overnight, could not resist the charging Gardemeister on today's stages, and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. Driving carefully to ensure a points finish, the young Finn still managed a solid points finish for Mitsubishi, and crossed the finish line 40 seconds ahead of Duval's Citroen.

"The tires have been good and our only problem today was a puncture in the final stage," Rovanpera explained. "Seventh position is right for the conditions and the car we had on this event -- it was not possible to do more. But, I know that when everything is working perfectly, we can fight hard for the top position".

The WRC tour now takes a three-week break before tackling a very different challenge: the tricky vineyard roads and tank tracks of Rallye Deutschland. The private domain of Sebastien Loeb and Citroen for the past three years, can Gronholm -- or anyone else -- pose a serious challenge to the French world champion there?

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