Marcus Gronholm looks to be well on his way to a sixth Rally Finland victory, barring any disaster on the World Rally Championship event's final day tomorrow. His lead is a comfortable 67.8 seconds over championship leader Sebastien Loeb, and some 1:40 over his Ford teammate, Mikko Hirvonen.
And things got worse for Loeb quickly after that: on the first pass through the ultra-fast Ouninpohja East stage, the defending world champion hit a rock, puncturing his front left tire, and losing over 32 seconds on the stage.
With a 45-second gap to Gronholm after SS12, the Kronos Racing Citroen pilot conceded that his chances of victory were minimal. "It's over now," he admitted. "I am more than 40 seconds behind. Here, you can't make up that time, especially against someone like Gronholm. I have to drive perfectly to take a second from him."
Gronholm actually touched the same rock, but only enough to slightly chip the wheel. He drove a wider line than last year because of a firewood stack by the side of the road, and that was enough to make the difference.
"If I had taken a 10-20 cm tighter line, I would have hit it," the Ford pilot reflected.
While Loeb didn't exactly switch to a Sunday drive mode afterward, Gronholm was able to stretch the gap by another 25 seconds before the end of the day -- and Hirvonen essentially matched Loeb's pace, though he wasn't able to make up the gap.
Meanwhile, Petter Solberg can't seem to shake his bad luck this year, and the Norwegian veteran rolled his Subaru Impreza shortly after the start of SS11. Solberg and co-pilot Phil Mills were OK, but the due wasn't able rejoin any of the Saturday stages at least, so the duo is well out of contention.
"We slid into the ditch in a long, shallow left curve," Solberg recounted. "Then we hit a rock, the car spun and rolled over on the roof."
Elder brother Henning is holding upo the family honour, though, with a solid fourth place in his privateer Peugeot 307 WRC. He's nearly two minutes behind Hirvonen, but a minute ahead of Gigi Galli, also in a private Peugeot.
Janne Tuohino, driving a Citroen Xsara WRC for only the second time, is in sixth, still trying to come to grips with the different driving style that the French machinery requires.
"With this car, you really need to keep the revs high," he explained. "I'm used to taking turns in a taller gear, and now I need to be one gear lower. That's messing up my driving!"