On the final day of Rally Finland, the tenth round in the World Rally Championship, there was little doubt about who would cross the finish line first: Marcus Gronholm started the leg 67.8 seconds ahead of archrival Sebastien Loeb, and finished the rally still 66.7 in front of the Frenchman.
"It feels great, although today seemed rather long with the bug gaps," Gronholm said at the finish. "It was a lot like last year. Sunday is really an unnecessary day here, maybe we should just skip it."
"When I was a young driver in the 1990s, I could never have believed that I would win this rally six times," he continued. "I have not had a single problem all weekend and victory here is really important to me. I had a good fight with Loeb but once he hit a rock and dropped time yesterday, I had a comfortable lead and could pace myself to the finish."
Loeb's hopes for victory were dashed for good early on Saturday morning, when he hit a large rock on SS11, suffering a puncture and losing over thirty seconds on the stage to Gronholm. That bumped Gronholm's lead to nearly 45 seconds and effectively sealed the top three spots.
"There's no shame in giving best to Marcus on his home territory, but I still feel a bit disappointed," the champion continued. "I don't think we have ever been so close to Marcus here: thanks to a big attack and a trouble-free run we were able to beat him for the first time on the Ouninpohja stage. So now we know it's possible -- and we know as well just how much effort we need to put in to get there."
Mikko Hirvonen, Gronholm's teammate at Ford, was the fastest on each of today's four stages, but even he took only seven seconds off the gap to the defending WRC champion, and finished 28 seconds behind Loeb, and nearly 1:35 behind his teammate.
"Fantastic!" exclaimed Hirvonen. "I have dreamed of being on the podium here ever since I was a little kid, and now it's real."
For Gronholm, it was a dominant performance overall, as the Finn took 12 stage wins on the challenging gravel roads on his home soil, bettering the mark of 11 that he set last year. The victory was his sixth in Rally Finland, tying him for second in career victories with the six wins the legendary Markku Alen earned in Fiat and Lancia cars between 1976 and 1987.
Both drivers are one short of Hannu Mikkola's mark of seven wins, set between 1968 and 1983, although the first three of his wins (1968 through 1970) were prior to the establishment of the WRC.
"Finally the luck we had been missing during the first half of the season was on our side," Solberg recounted. "I have nothing to reproach myself for. The three works teams in front of us can't be beaten under such conditions."
Gigi Galli (Peugeot 307) and Janne Tuohino (Citroen Xsara) took fifth and sixth places, some two minutes off Solberg's pace. Janne Valimaki, in a privately-entered Mitsubish Lancer, was seventh, and Jan Kopecky took the final points-paying position in a Red Bull Skoda Fabia WRC.
The WRC circus now moves around the globe to Rally Japan in a fortnight's time -- but there, too, the surface will be gravel, something that Gronholm is certainly going to be happy about.
While the two-time world champion recognizes that it will be extremely difficult to make up the gap to Loeb -- the Frenchman leads by 92 points to Gronholm's 61 with six events remaining -- he is spoling for a fight to the end.
"My target is to win every rally now," he confirmed. "I know I can win more rallies this season. With the Focus RS, I have the car to do it, so why not?"