Marcus Gronholm took the first steps toward getting back into the World Rally Championship title contention with a convincing victory in the Rally of Turkey. Gronholm led a Ford Focus WRC 1-2 finish with teammate Mikko Hirvonen, over three minutes ahead of other competitors.
"To win with no problems in such tricky conditions is a fantastic achievement from the whole team," said Gronholm after taking his 23rd WRC victory. "Yesterday was one of the worst days I have seen in the WRC. It was a difficult rally with so much mud and I felt far more relaxed when I no longer had to push after Petter Solberg retired yesterday. It was incredibly hard to attack on roads that were so slippery it was difficult to stand up."
"Apart from hitting the rock yesterday, the rally was actually quite good for us," Solberg reflected on the weekend. "The car has improved and we enjoyed being back again where we should be. Of course we are not happy with the overall result, but we're happy with the performance."
Gronholm, then, was able to cruise home today, and neither of the Ford pilots took big risks today, given that their positions were not under threat. Gronholm finished the rally with a margin of 2:23 to Hirvonen, and 3:06 to the third-place man, Henning Solberg. Gronholm took five stage wins, and his younger teammate one.
Henning Solberg, the older brother of Petter, was out of his brother's shadow this weekend, earning a WRC podium finish on his own merits -- and driving a 2005-spec Peugeot 307 WRC for OMV Peugeot Norway, rather than his brother's works Subaru ride.
The elder Solberg fought off challenges from Subaru's second driver, Chris Atkinson, Kronos Racing's Xavier Pons and Stobart's Kosti Katajamaki -- not to mention brake troubles on the penultimate stage -- to clinch the podium position, a career first for Solberg and his co-driver Cato Menkerud.
"When we reached the finish, Cato suddenly started to cry," Solberg recounted, surely the happiest driver at the finish. "I couldn't help myself and joined in. It is such a wonderful day for us. I'd like to thank my family, Bozian Racing and my sponsors who have made such happiness possible for me."
"I have mixed emotions," Katajamaki explained. "Whilst it is my best ever WRC finish, I was so close to coming 4th. But it was a technical problem and I am just very happy that I didn't make any mistakes this weekend."
Atkinson, who looked on Saturday afternoon to be the favorite for fourth place, spun on the penultimate stage, and lost two places to finish sixth, eight seconds adrift of Katajamaki,capping yet another frustrating weekend for the Subaru team.
Daniel Sordo brought the second of the Kronos Racing entries home in seventh place, for three points in the manufacturers' title fight. Unfortunately for the team Pons, who finished three spots higher up, was not one of the two nominated drivers for this event, and thus wasn't able to contribute to the Kronos tally.
Worse, Colin McRae, substituting for Loeb, failed to finish with an electrical problem midway through the final stage, while running in seventh place.
Manfred Stohl took the final drivers' point -- and two manufacturers' points -- in the second OMV Peugeot entry, just 5.5 seconds behind Sordo.
Gronholm's victory now brings him to within 25 points of the still-injured Loeb, with three events remaining. It is only a slim chance for the Finn, who has two championships under his belt, but much depends on Loeb's recovery.
In the manufacturers' title fight the Ford 1-2, combined with the disastrous Kronos weekend, moves the British team to the front, with a margin of eight points.
"Now we have to try to extend our lead in the manufacturers' series," Gronholm explained his outlook. "That is my priority. This victory has allowed me to close the gap on Sebastien Loeb in the drivers' championship but I'm not really thinking about that title now."