Marcus Gronholm has started the World Rally Championship season on a high note, winning the first two rally events on the 2006 calendar. The Finn scored his first tarmac victory in Monte Carlo and followed that up by notching today's Swedish Rally win -- the 50th WRC victory for Ford.
And what a way to celebrate one's birthday -- the two-time WRC champion turned 38 today on his way to his 19th career victory. "My birthday isn't so important now," reflected the flying Finn.
"The big thing for me is that the Focus has proved so competitive all weekend. BFGoodrich provided me with great tyres and I set some superb stage times," he added. "I just hope that the car will be as competitive on gravel because it would be great to continue this winning run on the next round."
Ford's first world rally win came at the hands of another flying Finn: Timo Makinen took the manufacturer's first victory in the 1000 Lakes Rally in 1973, literally flying over the "yumps" on the Finnish roads.
"To win the first two rallies of the season, both of which are very different in nature, with a car based on the new Ford Focus ST is fantastic," commented Jost Capito, Ford TeamRS Director. "It's great that with the Focus RS WRC we can offer Marcus and Mikko (Hirvonen) a car in which they can show their talent."
It was not easy sailing to the win for Gronholm, though -- far from it. But with a strong finish by Gronholm, defending WRC champion Sebastien Loeb missed the top of the podium by nearly 31 seconds. The two were the only ones with a shot at the overall victory, nearly from the get-go on Friday's leg one.
The Frenchman, who scored the back-to-back WRC title last season, drives for the independent Kronos Racing team, using last year's Citroen that Loeb dominated world rally competition with in 2005.
When Gronholm showed signs of a problem on the 16th special stage, just prior to the first service stop, Loeb closed the gap to 14.4 seconds. Gronholm's Focus had a hydraulic oil leak, and the filter was dripping oil onto the windscreen. Using manual gear selection, Gronholm used his experience to bring the Ford to the finish and into the service park
"Right up to the start of the last stage we tried everything: absolutely everything! Today Marcus was quicker than us," stated Loeb. "This morning, when Marcus's car had a problem and we closed to within 15 seconds, we tried a daring tyre choice. We've got no regrets about the outcome. Another second place, with eight drivers' and constructors' points, is a good start to a season which is going to be fascinating. All the signs are there for a good fight!"
After Gronholm,and Loeb, there was nobody within reach, but Daniel Carlsson and Gigi Galli put on a great show with the battle for third in their privateer Mitsubishi Lancers. In the end, Carlsson sealed the final podium position in his home rally by beating Galli by 6.8 seconds on the final stage, the 11.25-km Malta 2.
"This is indescribable!" the 29-year-old Swede exclaimed. "After the mishap in Australia, we have come back, without any testing or preparation, and scored third in the rally! Hopefully now that I have the podium finish, the sponsorship money will start to arrive."
While Galli lost the battle for third, he, too, scored a career best with the fourth place.
Even behind the Gronholm-Loeb and Carlsson-Galli battles, there was drama at the end of the rally. Janne Tuohino, running a comfortable fifth in a privateer Citroen Xsara, suffered an engine failure just 200 metres from the final checkered flag, incurring a five-minute penalty for failing to finish the stage and dropping down to 10th place, out of the points.
And then there was Petter Solberg. The Norwegian ace had suffered gearbox problems on Friday, dropping well out of contention, and then slid into a snowbank on yesterday's final leg. But worse was yet to come: at the start of SS18, the Subaru's engine refused to engage, and Solberg and co-driver Phil Mills were excluded from the rally for failing to take the start within the prescribed 20 seconds.
So there were more fresh faces in the points: veteran pilot Thomas Radstrom took fifth, the 40-year-old loose surface specialist scoring his seventh points finish in his home rally since 1995.
And for truly fresh, Kosti Katajamaki, who moved up from Junior WRC for this season, scored a sixth place in his first drive in a top-level WRC car, a privately-enter Focus WRC 04.
"My speed was getting better all the time," Katajamaki recounted. "But the top guys are going rather fast, and for now we have no chance of fighting them. Now we know what our pace is, and how much more risk we need to take."
Gronholm's win gave him a four-point lead in the championship over Loeb, 20 points to 16. Carlsson and Toni Gardemeister -- who did not enter the Swedish Rally -- share third at six points each. The championship battle now moves to the gravel roads of Argentina.