Petter Solberg claimed his first victory today in Rally New Zealand, finishing the drama-filled event with a slim 5.9 second margin over Marcus Gronholm when the Finn spun on the penultimate stage, losing 18 seconds.
Gronholm drove like a man possessed on that stage, the 29.6 km long Whaanga Coast 2. With a clear 10.4 second margin over Solberg's Subaru and 19.7 seconds over Martin, Gronholm made sure of scoring second, but could not make up the time to deny Solberg his first victory of 2004.
"If there is one man you don't want behind you on the final day, it's Gronholm," Solberg mused. "We were both pushing like hell out there. He had trouble, then I had trouble. I'm totally exhausted, but, overall, it's been really, really good fun. To win here is a great feeling!"
The Norwegian held the lead throughout the second leg on Saturday, building a solid 20 second cushion in spite of winning only two of the second day's stages. Steady top-three times on most of the stages looked to be enough for Solberg to cruise to victory on the final day.
However, it all went wrong on the SS20, the first Whaanga Coast 2 stage. Solberg's Subaru was hit by a rock thrown up by another competitor, and suffered damage to its power steering. Solberg lost 29.6 seconds to stage winner Sebastien Loeb, and, more importantly, Gronholm beat him by 20.9 seconds to claim the lead.
"I came into a tight, right-hander, and hit something on the inside," Martin recalled. "Straight away the steering went and I had to do the rest of the stage with no power assistance at all. I think I was quite lucky in some respects, as I've been doing a lot of weights recently!"
"A podium result is always a good one so I'm happy after what has been an +interesting weekend," Martin recounted at the end of the event. "Had we known that Petter [Solberg] was going to have a problem this morning then we would have pushed harder, but we didn't want to take risks when we were in a safe third."
Once all was said and done, Solberg had claimed five stage wins to Gronholm's eight, with Martin at two. Loeb, who finished the rally in fourth -- a decent result for the tarmac specialist -- took another two wins for Citroen, and Harri Rovanpera, Gronholm's teammate at Peugeot, took two more and a fifth-place finish.
The race to the championship is tighter than ever, with the top four drivers separated by only three points: Martin at 26, Loeb at 25, Gronholm at 24, and Solberg with 23 points.
In the end, not only was there plenty of excitement at Rally New Zealand, but the tight battle between Solberg, Gronholm and Martin holds promise for a lot more hard-fought rallies in this championship season.
"It's been a very good rally for us," Gronholm explained. "But the most important thing about it is that the 307 WRC is definitely heading in the right direction. There are still some important developments to come, but all the team's hard work on the new car is beginning to pay off."