Marcus Gronholm has been in his element on the gravel trails of Wales, dominating Rally Great Britain, the final round of the 2006 World Rally Championship. With a lead of well over a minute, he is in a strong position to claim his 25th career WRC victory.
"It was really slippery but there was no rain, so conditions weren't too bad," Gronholm recounted. "The first cars on the road had an advantage, but there was nothing to worry about where I was. The surface was hard so the roads weren't cutting up. I made no mistakes and was able to ease off a little when I heard that Petter (Solberg) had gone off."
Solberg, the winner of this event for the past four years, has been struggling throughout the event, as has been the case for much of 2006. He stalled on SS1, had issues with traction control, and by the time SS3 was in the books, he was already 30 seconds adrift of Gronholm's Ford Focus.
Instead, the gauntlet has been taken up by Stohl and the resurgent OMV Peugeot Norway team. Stohl, driving a 2005-spec Peugeot 307 WRC, isn't a threat to Gronholm's dominance, given the 78-second gap, but he is in a strong position to match his career-best second-place WRC finish.
Solberg had started the day with a 22-second lead over Stohl, but Stohl edged him by 26 seconds on the day's first stage, SS7. Solberg regained second place by SS9, but Stohl gained some time back again in SS10, closing to within 3.6 seconds.
What decided that battle was neither Stohl's Peugeot nor Solberg's works Subaru, though. Instead, it was a steel fencepost near the end of SS11, disguised behind a haystack -- incidentally, the very same fencepost that ended Gronholm's rally in 2004. Solberg did not hit the post extremely hard, but it was enough to damage his steering.
"We tried just to stay in second place," Solberg described the events. "But then I turned-in just a few millimetres too early near the end of SS11, hit a pole, broke the steering and I was out of second. The last forest stage wasn't easy but we got through okay, we're still in the competition and that's the main thing."
The Norwegian ace dropped 7.6 seconds on SS11, and then, with no interim service opportunity, 55.7 seconds on SS12 and then 3.1 seconds on the final Cardiff superspecial.
The end result for the leg has Stohl comfortably in second, 50 seconds ahead of Solberg, and Solberg 22 seconds in front of Kronos Racing's Xavier Pons.
Pons drove a strong leg, and while he dropped 19 seconds relative to Gronholm, he moved ahead of his Kronos teammate, Daniel Sordo, and Stobart VK Motorsport's Jari-Matti Latvala. Latvala is still within reach, 4.4 seconds behind Pons. However, Sordo has fallen well back, having suffered from gearbox troubles today, and is now in eighth place, behind Subaru's Chris Atkinson and Skoda's Francois Duval.
"I always knew it was going to be tough to hold on to fourth today," Latvala said. "Pons was getting close to us this morning and he has a lot more experience than me in this kind of car. Of course, I am very happy to be where I am, but I will push for fourth tomorrow."
Four stages remain in the 2006 World Rally Championship's season finale, and Gronholm is focused on claiming a seventh victory for the season. That would match the total for the injured Loeb, but still leave him one singular point behind the Frenchman in the final championship standings.
"The weather forecast is bad for tonight, with heavy rain, so it could be a long and hard day," Gronholm said. "Tomorrow's stages are technically difficult and always very, very slippery and it's not the place where I want to have to push."