Marcus Gronholm drove fast in the Greek mountains to take victory in the 2007 Acropolis Rally -- but, more importantly, he drove smartly to avoid excessive risk. His chief rival in the World Rally Championship, Sebastien Loeb, was forced into ...
Marcus Gronholm drove fast in the Greek mountains to take victory in the 2007 Acropolis Rally -- but, more importantly, he drove smartly to avoid excessive risk. His chief rival in the World Rally Championship, Sebastien Loeb, was forced into driving on the edge, and the risks he took ended up costing him his chance at a victory.
"I had a good rally with no problems and it's a huge confidence boost to take two wins before the summer break," Gronholm reflected at the finish. "The rough roads and high temperatures ensured it was a hard rally for cars and tires but both were perfect all rally. Today I was able to match my speed to Loeb's split times and I felt comfortable throughout."
With relatively large gaps after yesterday's drama, and today's shortened final leg -- the Imittos stage, SS20, was canceled on Sunday due to environmental concerns -- the leaders were satisfied to secure their finishing positions and championship points on the final day. So it was Gronholm, in a Ford Focus RS WRC, taking the Acropolis Rally victory for the second year in a row, and the second WRC victory in a row.
Loeb repeated a second-place finish in his Citroen C4 WRC, 38.6 seconds behind, and Subaru's Petter Solberg completed the podium, 55.6 seconds behind Loeb. Unlike many WRC events in the past year, no one was able to run away with the lead on the rough, rocky Greek roads, and it was a matter of driving a perfect rally in order to clinch the win. Gronholm put himself in a prime position on the first pass through the 49.8 km Agii Theodori stage, and was able to avoid excessive risk and secure a victory on the subsequent stages.
"It really wasn't easy," Gronholm said. "We had small troubles with the tires, but we managed to avoid big problems."
Loeb, who took six of the 21 stage wins, had a chance for victory until early Saturday, but lost it after hitting a rock on the second pass theough Agii Theodori, SS14, on Saturday and puncturing his tire. With everyone on worn tires by that stage, it was a risk that Loeb had to take to catch up, but the outcome dropped him over 40 seconds behind Gronholm overnight.
"It was impossible to make up a gap of 43.3 seconds (today) in a straight fight but I pushed hard in order to defend my position," Loeb said. "We've had easier rallies; I didn't drive all that well on SS2 and it took us some time to find the ideal set-up. After that, even though the BFGoodrich run-flat system did its job, I was forced to lift both times through the long (Agii Theodori) stage to be sure of making it to the finish."
Solberg, resurgent in the 2007-spec Subaru Impreza WRC, impressed in early going, and was in a position to take second place from Loeb. However, his Subaru -- like that of teammate Chris Atkinson -- was beset by a front shock absorber failure, and the Norwegian veteran lost a full minute in the late afternoon stages on Saturday.
"It's been a difficult rally but I'm very happy to finish on the podium," Solberg explained. "Sebastien had too much of a lead for us to catch him today, so instead we concentrated on keeping a steady pace, driving carefully and getting the championship points. It's been a good weekend for the whole team actually and the car is getting better and better. "
Gronholm's Ford teammate, Mikko Hirvonen, took fourth place, 1:17 behind Solberg. The younger Finn would normally have been in a fight for the podium, but a pace note error cost him dearly, as he ended up off the road, 60 meters in the bush, on Saturday morning. A broken windshield as well as a series of punctures dropped him well back and out of contention for third, but Hirvonen was satisfied to score some points for himself and the team.
"Today was easy because I just paced myself to the finish," he explained. "I had a good position on Friday and felt able to fight for a win but on Saturday morning I went off the road. That crash was the worst moment of my year so far but I recovered and I'm pleased to finish. It was a tough event, but that's what is expected of the Acropolis Rally. That's why it is one of the season's classics."
Henning Solberg, driving for a Ford Focus RS WRC for Stobart M-Sport, was embroiled in a fight for fifth place with Atkinson for much of Saturday, but with Atkinson's suspension troubles late on Saturday afternoon, Solberg was able to pull away, and simply secure the fifth place today.
"It has been a very tough event and I had to use my head, be clever, and think about the best way to tackle it," Solberg reflected. "All of the drivers ahead of us have been testing a lot recently so this makes it an even better result for me. I had some problems with the brakes towards the end of the first stage on Sunday and also sometimes in the second stage and there were a few places where we only had rear brakes. Sunday was an important day for us and we were able to maintain our position even with the small problems with the brakes; we have got four points which helps a lot in the championship."
Atkinson held the lead early on in the rally, admittedly aided by the fact that Gronholm and Loeb had to open the stages based on their championship positions, and was only nine seconds off the pace at the start of the second leg. However, a bad puncture on SS10 -- the first pass through the grueling Agii Theodori -- ended up shredding his tire before the stage finished, costing him nearly two minutes. With the subsequent shock absorber problem, Atkinson had to consider himself lucky to bring home the three championship points.
"We definitely made a positive start to this rally, and it was more than a good road position that enabled us to do those times," the young Australian reflected. "I'd say the car was working better than it had done on the last few rallies, so that was a good sign. Saturday just wasn't our day and we suffered with some classic Acropolis problems like the punctures and damaged components. In the end we weren't able to rediscover the performance or the feeling we had enjoyed on the first morning, and that's the challenge for us over the next two months."
Going into the two-month WRC summer break, then, Gronholm carries over a nine-point championship lead over Loeb -- a much stronger position than last year, when the Finn was beset by reliability problems early in the year, and finished the first half 29 points adrift of Loeb.
"It's fantastic to go into summer with a nine-point lead in the drivers' championship and a big lead for the team. I can enjoy the holiday now! We're able to fight with Loeb, and maybe he's not so comfortable any more, but I know that the second half of the year won't be easy with four events on asphalt -- his favourite surface."
Aided by Hirvonen's steady performance through the first half of the season -- Ford's #2 driver has finished fifth or better in every event -- Ford has a decisive lead in the manufacturers' championship, with 114 points to Citroen's 86.
The season resumes on the first weekend on August, then, with the traditional visit to the jumps of Rally Finland, followed by the tarmac challenge of Rally Germany two weeks later.