Marcus Gronholm was not the fastest driver on the final day of Rally of Great Britain, the 2006 World Rally Championship finale, but then he did not need to be, either.
"In terms of rally wins, this is my best season and I'm delighted to deliver this win for the (Ford Focus) team," Gronholm said at the finish. "I can't believe I have moved ahead of Tommi (Makinen) to become the most successful Finn ever. "
It was also Ford's first victory in Rally GB since the legendary Hannu Mikkola won the event in a Ford Escort RS1800 in 1979.
"It's fantastic to win again and this ends a great season in perfect style," the two-time WRC champion continued.
Gronholm's victory gives him 111 points for the season, one short of Sebastien Loeb -- who is still convalescing from a mountain-biking accident -- and the championship. The win also gives Ford the record for manufacturer points under the current system, with 195 points.
Mikko Hirvonen, the team's second driver, took third place in the drivers' championship with 65 points. Hirvonen failed to finish in Wales, having damaged his car's roll cage on the first special stage.
After two days of pushing hard -- and taking nine of the thirteen stage victories -- Gronholm was able to play things safe on the final leg, ensuring the result. Even so, his margin over second-placed Manfred Stohl was over 95 seconds at the finish.
Stohl took second place for the OMV Peugeot Norway team with a strong drive through the Welsh forests, crossing the finish line in his 2005-spec Peugeot 307 WRC 19.7 seconds ahead of Petter Solberg's works Subaru.
"This success is of much higher value (than Cyprus) though, since I'm only 1:35 behind the winner; in Cyprus it was over four minutes," Stohl reflected after the finish. "Still, prior to the triumph tension was extremely high. You listen for each little noise that shouldn't be there on the last day. The gas foot trembles permanently. But you still have to be highly focused in order to keep up the speed."
For Stohl, it was certainly a high point, as he split two world champions driving works-prepared 2006-spec cars. "A privateer right among the works teams on the podium, and it is not a dream but reality," he continued. "Just like these three podium places in a row."
For Solberg, it was another bitter pill to swallow, in line with his 2006 prescription, as mechanical problems and two off-road excursions again took away his chance at a stronger finish. With only two second places to show for his efforts in 2006, he finished the season in fifth place with 40 points, behind privateers Stohl and Daniel Sordo (Kronos Citroen).
Solberg had started the day 49.9 seconds behind Stohl, and came out of the gates charging, while Stohl was trying to ensure a trouble-free finish. He set the fastest time on SS14 (and later on SS16 and SS17), but on SS15, a puncture suffered before the start of the stage induced a spin, costing him some 20 seconds and the chance to catch up to Stohl.
"I set a very fast time on the first stage, but the puncture and spin we had in the second test made it impossible to overtake Stohl," Solberg explained. "The gap to second place was too big, so we had to settle for third. I was enjoying the stages in the afternoon and the pace we were setting shows that next year, when things are going better for us, I think we will be very fast."
Jari-Matti Latvala took fourth place, 42 seconds behind Solberg, in a Stobart Motorsport-entered Ford Focus RS WRC 06. He had started the final leg in fifth place, behind Kronos Racing's Xavier Pons, but moved up with a steady drive and some help from Pons in the form of a spin.
It was Latvala's first drive in a top-level car in the WRC, and the 21-year-old Finn made the most of it, following up his two P-WRC wins in Australia and New Zealand with a strong fourth-place finish at the top level.
"After I had been in fourth place for so much of the event, I didn't really want to give it up this morning," Latvala explained. "I pushed in the first stage and took a couple of seconds out of Pons. Then in the next one he had (a spin), which made a big gap between us. To be honest, I could have gone quicker in SS15, but I had a big moment not far from the start of the stage, so I was aware of what I was risking all of the time. I didn't want any mistakes, so I was more sensible after that!"
Pons had to settle for fifth place in another disappointing rally for Kronos. With their superstar, Loeb, out of the picture, the team has not been able to make it to the podium, and have been beaten by their main privateer rivals, OMV Peugeot, in every event.
Chris Atkinson took sixth place in the second works Subaru, 7.6 seconds behind Pons, and Sordo finished 40 seconds behind him in the second Kronos Citroen.
Francois Duval took the eighth and final points-paying position in his First Motorsport Skoda Fabia, 14 seconds behind Sordo, and ahead of Red Bull's Harri Rovanpera and Czech Motorsport's Jan Kopecky, both also driving privateer Skoda Fabia WRCs.
The 2007 season will kick off in seven short weeks with the famed Rallye Monte-Carlo, from 19 to 21 January.