Marcus Gronholm took the spoils of victory at the Cyprus Rally today in a dominating performance in challenging conditions, showing that he is still the man to beat for the 2004 World Rally Championship. Sebastien Loeb took second for Citroen, ahead of Ford driver Markko Martin.
As a result, the two-time champion was able to drive conservatively for much of the rally, and take the maiden victory for the new-for-2004 Peugeot 307 WRC.
"It's a real privilege to take the first win with the 307," Gronholm expressed after his victory. "We have come close to winning before this year, but this time it was a rally where everything went right for us. The car has been generally reliable and we haven't made any mistakes."
Gronholm started the final day of the rally with six special stages left to defend a lead of 22.9 seconds over the Citroen Xsara of Sebastien Loeb. The Finn laid down the gauntlet on the first stage of the day, though, taking SS13 (Vavatsinia - Mandra) by a shocking margin of 17.5 seconds, and his lead was never again threatened in the remaining five stages.
"The whole team has worked very hard and everybody deserves this result," Gronholm credited his team. "Now we are looking forward to Greece, where of course we will be trying to win again."
Both Loeb and Solberg beat Gronholm out with stage wins, with six apiece, but neither had the same consistency, nor were they able to pull out the kind of monster win that Gronholm claimed on SS13.
Loeb, the winner of the year's first two events, in Monaco and Sweden, stayed on Gronholm's heels through the first two days, but could not match the Finnish veteran on the final legs along dusty roads in the Cypriot countryside. In the end, he crossed the finish line on the final stage 54 seconds adrift of the winner.
With the team's second driver, two-time champion Carlos Sainz, finishing in fourth place, there was cause for satisfaction in the Citroen camp.
"The step forward we have achieved as far as performance goes is considerable," said team manager Guy Frequelin. "This is a strong close formation result, the best we could have hoped for in normal circumstances."
Markko Martin squeezed his Ford Focus between the two Citroens in the final results, not letting up the pressure on Loeb, staying within attack range, but without quite enough pace to catch up. The Estonian, also thinking about the championship fight, lost just five seconds to Loeb on the final day, and finished the rally 15 seconds behind the Frenchman, but a comfortable two minutes in front of Sainz.
"I believed it was possible for us to catch Sebastien today," Martin recalled the final day. "But he drove very well and there was no point in taking risks because it was quite slippery this morning. He wasn't to be caught but I hope that will change on the next rally.
"We were first to tackle the stages on Friday and that was a difficult day, but we knew that was going to be the case," he explained. "Third was where I would have predicted we would finish and we maintained the same speed from start to finish."
Martin's prediction looked in danger on SS16, though, as the Estonian's Focus left all its gearbox oil on the road. "After about 5km of the stage we could smell oil and then the warning light came on. The gearbox was getting quite hot but all was OK. It must be a very strong gearbox to run with no oil!"
Solberg's rally was spoiled by the overheating problems on the first day, but the 2003 champion drove well through the remaining two days, being outpaced by only Gronholm, Loeb and Martin, and finished the rally in sixth place, behind Harri Rovanpera's Peugeot.
"For me, the rally started better than it finished and obviously I'm still disappointed about the radiator problem," Solberg explained. "But, without that it would have been a perfect rally. We should have had more points but I'm still pleased to take something away. As far as the Championship goes, there are still plenty of rounds to go this year - so I'm focusing now on better fortunes in Greece."
The trio at the top of the championship standings -- Gronholm, Loeb and Martin -- is still the same as before the Cyprus Rally, and still separated by only two points, but it's now Gronholm on top, with Martin down to third.
Up next are Acropolis Rally and Rally of Turkey, two more hot, dusty and grueling events. And at least in Greece, it'll be Gronholm's turn to start first on the first day ...
Note: FIA will be holding additional scrutineering session on Wednesday on the legality Citroen Xsara and Peugeot 307 water pumps. Until the scrutineering session is completed, the current results remain provisional.
See also: Gronholm win under threat