After the tragedy of Rally of Great Britain a fortnight ago, Lady Luck smiled on Peugeot Sport this weekend, as Marcus Gronholm took home a victory in Rally Japan, the 13th event on this year's World Rally Championship calendar.
"The most important thing for me is that this victory is in memory of Michael Park: we want it to be for him," commented Gronholm. "We were pushing hard to the end and we were always close to the pace of Petter (Solberg). Whether or not that was why he went off is something we will never know, but we were never far off him."
"Under the circumstances this was the best possible result we could have; it is very good for the team," added the Finn.
While Gronholm dedicated the victory to Park, Sebastien Loeb converted a comfortable second place into something much more, by clinching the 2005 drivers' championship. He could have done it already in Great Britain, but he chose to not win after Park was killed on the final day of the event.
Beaming Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena were pleased to have notched the 2005 WRC title. "Fantastic," the Frenchman kept saying when the Rally Japan had ended. "We have reached the first peak of what has practically been a perfect season by sewing up our second
Loeb now has two championships to his name, the same as his rival Gronholm. Solberg's hopes -- which were, in reality, only mathematical -- for a second title were dashed when he lost his steering on the 25th stage. Drivers' title with three rounds still to come.
"Each time out, Citroen has given us a competitive and reliable car. This triumph is also theirs and we now intend to do all we can to make sure the team keeps the Manufacturers' title," continued the double champion. "They really deserve it. I only needed to finish 3rd here, and I came home in 2nd place but that doesn't change much. In the circumstances I am happy for Marcus, Timo and Peugeot."
Loeb drove a conservative race, contrary to his competitive nature, and finished the event 1:22 behind Gronholm's winning time.
"This wasn't an easy situation," Loeb summed up the rally. "I'm used to fighting for victory and driving flat out. Now I didn't need to, and I had to keep that in mind."
Gronholm had run behind Solberg for much of the event, and was some 22 seconds behind the Norwegian going into the penultimate stage, the 17.4-km Panke Nikorpet 2. The team was prepared to take a well-earned second place, but for once this year, it was someone else's heartbreak playing into Peugeot's hand.
The Norwegian, who took seven stage wins in the rally, led for nearly the entire event after taking over from early leader Chris Atkinson. But a rock was the end of it -- the 2003 champion saw it too late to avoid it, and terminally damaged his steering.
"It's shocking, I almost can't believe it," expressed Solberg on his accident. "I don't really know what to say. Things had been perfect for the 24 stages before and we were so close to the result we wanted, but then it just went in an instant. We could do nothing to avoid the rock, it was right in the line, it happened so fast and that was that. I'm absolutely gutted. There's nothing more to say."
Gronholm had been 32 seconds adrift of Solberg at the start of the third stage, and his plan for the day was to put pressure on Solberg and try to force a mistake. And maybe that did contribute ...
"There was something out there that surprised Petter," Gromholm explained. "I tried to keep the pressure up, and even went and and talked to him before the start."
So Solberg's struggles continue: while the 2003 champion did win in Great Britain, that was thanks to Loeb's intentional penalty, and the team has to look to 2006 for a fresh start.
Apart from Solberg's unfortunate early exit, Rally Japan was hard-fought and surprisingly even. Gronholm took eight stage wins, Solberg seven and Loeb three -- but behind them, Mitsubishi drivers Harri Rovanpera and Gigi Galli won three stages and one stage, respectively, and Atkinson claimed two stages on the first day.
In fact, Atkinson's performance over the three day event earned him his first podium finish. The Aussie finished third, nearly 20 seconds in front of Loeb's Citroen teammate Francois Duval -- perhaps a sign of the future rivalry between the younger drivers.
Rovanpera, who had been running fifth behind Loeb and teammate Gigi Galli coming into the final day, landed fifth for the Mitsubishi team after a troubled morning. The Finn lost 35 seconds when his engine stalled at the beginning of the day's first stage, and then again almost a minute with front-end damage, taking away his chance at a podium finish.
In the event, Atkinson finished third, 2:40 behind Gronholm, and some 20 second ahead Francois Duval, who took home five manufacturers' championship points in the second Citroen, building up the team's lead over Peugeot.
Rovanpera was a minute adrift in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo WRC, still a solid showing, but the team's home race really was spoiled by a combination of Rovanpera's problems and Galli's retirement with suspension damage on SS23.
With Solberg and Galli both dropping out in the late stages, Toni Gardemeister and Roman Kresta were able to secure sixth and seventh places for Ford, with Daniel Carlsson -- filling in for usual Peugeot pilot, Markko Martin -- taking home the final point.