Marcus Gronholm has given notice early that the 2007 World Rally Championship season will be a hard fight to the title, taking a victory on the icy roads of the Swedish Rally in convincing fashion in his Ford Focus RS WRC.
Gronholm knows the rally well, and the fifth victory in the event added to his wins in 2000, 2002 and 2003 (with Peugeot) and 2006 (with Ford). Only the legendary Stig Blomqvist has more wins in the Swedish Rally, having won the event seven times between 1971 and 1984 with Saab and Audi.
The Finnish champion, no stranger to snow, was at home on the icy gravel from the beginning, and then blew the rally wide open on Saturday, as Sebastien Loeb struggled with grip in his Citroen C4 WRC. Gronholm's lead entering today's final leg was 38.4 seconds, allowing him to drive conservatively to protect the victory.
"On Saturday morning I had the chance to substantially increase my lead over Loeb and I took it," he recounted the events. "My advantage more than doubled in two stages, and after that I had a little bit of breathing space. The only real problem this weekend was the temperature this morning. It was so cold on the first stage that there was ice inside the car on the rear windows and, even with foot warmers, my feet were so cold it was hard to feel the pedals!"
Loeb lost some 15-20 seconds on Saturday due to a poor choice of tires, but, in the event, it may not have been the deciding factor for the weekend as Gronholm simply had too much pace. "It was impossible to do any better," Loeb admitted on Saturday, but he still felt that the tire selection mistake lost him the rally.
"I lost a few seconds at the very beginning of the rally when I stalled at the start of SS1," Loeb recounted. "I also lost time when I was distracted on SS5. Even so, I think the outcome was decided by my poor tyre choice on Saturday. It was totally my fault. Since the start, I had been running slightly longer studs than Marcus and it had worked. So I continued with the same choice for SS11 and 12 but this time there was really too much ice for the longer option and I could feel my studs moving in the tread blocks making the car unstable."
With Mikko Hirvonen bringing the second works Focus home in third place, 38 seconds adrift of Loeb, it was a solid weekend for the Ford team in their quest for a second consecutive manufacturers' title. As Daniel Sordo, in the second Citroen, finished well out of the points, in 13th place, Ford is now only a single point behind Citroen in the championship fight, and Hirvonen sits in third in the drivers' title chase.
Henning Solberg, in a Stobart M-Sport-entered Ford Focus, clinched a fourth place with a steady drive in the freezing temperatures, keeping pace with Hirvonen throughout the final day.
"I took this rally slowly, step by step with no big push and I am happy with the result," Solberg said at the finish. "(Team principal Malcolm Wilson) told me to just get through today and I have brought the car back to him in one piece in a good position so I am very happy. I am so happy now the rally has finished it is almost better than my podium in Turkey. I love this car and it's a great team, I think I am at my best now."
Unfortunately M-Sport's other two entries suffered from the overnight deep-freeze conditions, as an engine breather pipe froze in Jari-Matti Latvala's and Matthew Wilson's cars, forcing the two to abandon the rally on the final morning. The two young drivers had been ninth and fourteenth places, respectively, but will now have to focus their efforts on Rally Norway.
Atkinson edged ahead of Carlsson in the first three stages, pushing hard enough to set the fastest stage time on SS16 -- but apparently a little too hard,as he spun into a ditch on SS18, losing nearly a minute, and any hope of a fifth- or sixth-place finish.
"The mistake on SS18 was disappointing, especially for the team, because we were on course to bring home three more championship points," Atkinson said. "But we've been encouraged by our pace here this weekend, we chose the right strategy of making a cautious start and what happened was just one those unfortunate things."
It wasn't quite clear sailing for Carlsson, though, as Gardemeister was charging hard behind, taking five seconds off Carlsson's edge on SS18 -- and then 15 seconds on SS19. It was too little too late, though, and Carlsson held fifth by some 16 seconds at the finish.
"I'm really satisfied with this result," Carlsson smiled after the event. "I couldn't ask for more from myself. Now, after the rally, I've realized the pressure I've been under. After last years third place the expectations on me where really high and to be able to finish fifth under those conditions in my home rally feels fantastic."
It was Carlsson's first rally since last year's Swedish Rally, and to add to the challenge, he was driving a Xsara for the first time -- and with a new navigator, Denis Giraudet. And the pace notes were now in English rather than Swedish ...
"Put Gronholm in the seat I've been with a new car, new co-driver, new language and new team -- and then see what he can perform," Carlsson said with a smirk. "But to be serious, it has of course been hard to get used to all new settings, but I'm really satisfied with this rally."
For Gardemeister, driving a personally-entered 2005-spec Mitsubishi Lancer WRC05, it was a rally of highs and lows. He was running fifth early Saturday afternoon, within striking distance of Hirvonen and Solberg, when the AWD system failed on his Lancer, causing first a 50-second penalty and then a loss of time on stage, dropping him back to eighth place. He pressed hard, though, and claimed sixth place at the finish -- and a shared of sixth in the drivers' championship.
Seventh, not able to match Gardemeister's pace on the final leg, was Manfred Stohl in the second OMV Kronos entry.
"All components still do not fit on the car," the Austrian explained. "We have to get as competitive as last year in order to be able to fight for podium places. Which means, for instance, the brakes but also the right choice of tyres. Still, to core two points as non-Scandinavian and non-Loeb is a great thing."
Notably missing from the top of the leaderboard was Subaru's team leader, Petter Solberg, who ran off course into a ditch on Saturday. The team subsequently withdrew his entry after losing 14 minutes on the stage, electing to save the car for Rally Norway.
The WRC circus now only has a few travel days, as action continues across the border in Norway on the 16th, with another snow rally. The first half of the season presents an opportunity for Gronholm, as the two Nordic rallies are then followed by no fewer than six events on gravel. Will he be able to take advantage?