Marcus Gronholm much prefers gravel rallies to tarmac ones, and he took advantage of the rough Greek mountain roads to take a clear victory in the Acropolis Rally, the eighth round of the 2006 World Rally Championship. Marcus Gronholm...
Marcus Gronholm much prefers gravel rallies to tarmac ones, and he took advantage of the rough Greek mountain roads to take a clear victory in the Acropolis Rally, the eighth round of the 2006 World Rally Championship.
It's great to experience the winning feeling again," Gronholm said, clearly relieved. "We have been on the pace all year but had some bad luck, but now we are back on the top step of the podium. It's satisfying to win such a tough rally!"
As Gronholm started the final leg with an advantage of 1:47 over the second-placed Loeb,it made sense for him to drive with caution, especially as the road conditions today were the roughest yet. But on the five stages of the final leg, Gronholm still managed two second places, a third -- and a two-second victory in the final superspecial at the Olympic Stadium. All that gave him a convincing margin of victory of 2:26 over Loeb's Kronos Racing Citroen Xsara WRC.
"It was terribly rough and I could never drive with total confidence because I knew how easy it was to damage the car on the rocks," the winner explained. "BFGoodrich's tyres were strong on such a demanding rally and when we had a puncture the mousse worked perfectly. I could not believe that the tyres withstood the impact from some rocks."
Others were also cautious, and Loeb, for example, lost nearly 40 seconds to Gronholm, while still staying ahead of third-placed Mikko Hirvonen in the second Focus WRC, who was 44 seconds slower than Gronholm on the day, and finished a minute and 17 seconds behind Loeb.
Loeb's chances had already been destroyed by an exploding tire on SS13, the final stage of the second leg, which had quadrupled his deficit to Gronholm, dropping him from 22 seconds to nearly a minute and fifty seconds.
"It was very rough," Loeb stated. "If I hadn't had the puncture (on SS13), I might have been able to fight with (Marcus Gronholm)."
"It was a difficult rally," Loeb summed things up. "With sweeping the road clean, getting a puncture and a tricky journey back to service, I'm very happy to come away with eight points for second place. Marcus was very quick, but nonetheless we managed to get some time back off him on Saturday. From Germany onwards, I know he'll be right there. It will be a very close fight, as always, but those tight battles with him are always the best ones."
Hirvonen, too, was playing it safe on the final day, as he started the day with a margin of nearly a minute to the cluster of four cars behind him.
"That's two podiums in a row and that is where I should be," he said. "I saw on Friday that I could not match Marcus' pace so I just watched the split times in the stages and drove accordingly. I avoided problems all weekend and the team has done a fantastic job. It was really difficult today because it was too rough and not nice to drive as I was just trying to avoid the rocks."
Hirvonen had a scare as the rally neared its end, though: as he was getting redy to start the final stage at the Olympic Stadium, his gearbox and center differential jammed. A five-minute penalty loomed should he not be able to take the start ...
"I got going in first, and then changed manually into second," Hirvonen explained. "That's how I got to the finish. The car made horrible sounds and I thought that we wouldn't make it, but we did, and still squeaked onto the podium!"
Of that group of four drivers that were to fight things out for fourth place -- Daniel Sordo, Manfred Stohl, Henning Solberg and Toni Gardemeister -- it was Gardemeister that was able to put on a dominant show today. Starting with a 18-second gap to Sordo, the Finn drove his Astra Racing Citroen Xsara hard, and finished 35 seconds ahead of Solberg to claim fourth, 37 seconds behind Hirvonen.
"On the first two days we drove all out," Gardemeister recounted. "I couldn't figure out why we were still not keeping up. Then (co-driver Jakke Honkanen) figured out that we were going in too fast into the turns and making too many corrections. We decided to reduce the entry speed today, and it worked."
Stohl rolled his Peugeot 307 WRC on the first stage to fall out of the fight, and neither Solberg or Sordo was a match for Gardemeister, although the pair fought hard for the fifth. Entering the final stage at the Olympic Stadium, Sordo was 3.9 seconds adrift, and a strong performance at the stadium got him close, but eventually he still finished 0.8 seconds behind the Norwegian.
Seventh overall was the fastest driver of the final day, Henning's brother and formwer world champion Petter Solberg. His Subaru had been badly damaged in a civilian driver-induced incident prior to SS13, and he had incurred a five-minute penalty for missing that stage, dropping him back to ninth place.
The Norwegian ace drove hard on the final day, taking victories on every stage bar the final superspecial, making up 40 seconds on Gronholm and moving up to seventh place in the process.
"I'm really disappointed as I just did not deserve this luck this weekend," Petter Solberg rued his fortunes. "Despite the accident yesterday I've got to say that we have seen some very good improvements in the car and it looks positive. We need to take the positive points and put them into a package and I know we can get there. We'll be back."
The world rally circus now takes a well-deserved summer vacation, not returning to action until Rallye Deutschland on 11 August, followed by Rally Finland a week later -- a tarmac-gravel combination sure to induce another pair of Gronholm-Loeb battles.