Rally Australia 2000 is sure to be remembered as one of the most tactical WRC qualifying rounds in a long, long time. On the last day, however, once teams and drivers had finished with their cat and mouse games as they jockeyed for positions on the final day, it was time at last for skill to take front stage as the rally headed for the celebrated Bunnings forest complex and its infamous "marbles".
And there, in as emphatic fashion as you can get, it was four-times World Champion Tommi Makinen who turned on the speed to collect the third win of his career on this event.
Despite being second on the road (further "manoeuvring" permitted Subaru's Richard Burns to "drop" to third in the start order!), the Mitsubishi-Michelin driver kicked off the final shoot-out with Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot-Michelin) and Burns by setting a pair of fastest times that put him practically out of reach with just two stages remaining.
Even the raging scrap between title rivals Gronholm and Burns failed to dent Makinen's supremacy over the final tests and the Finn was able to cruise home relatively comfortably to his second win of the year after his success in Monte Carlo last January.
In the end, Marcus Gronholm successfully maintained his advantage in the Drivers' World Championship. He and Burns spent most of the preliminary action shadowing and eyeing one another in similar fashion to sprint cyclists before the final dash to the finish line. But when the time eventually came for the real business to begin, the Peugeot-Michelin driver coolly kept the British star at bay to clinch second overall. despite the latter's recognised advantage of a later starting position.
The bottom line of all this is that Gronholm will go to the last round of the calendar in Great Britain in two weeks time with a seven point advantage over the Briton at the top of the points table. To prevent the Finn clinching the crown in only his first full season as a professional, Burns must obligatorily come first in his home round. and even then a podium for the Peugeot driver would be sufficient to secure the title.
Today's result also means that only Peugeot-Michelin and Ford-Michelin can now hope to win the Manufacturers' championship, although the cards seem stacked in favour of the French firm. The mathematics are that Ford will have to win in Great Britain with one car and finish at least fifth with the other, without either of the two nominated 206 WRCs scoring. Inversely, five points for Peugeot would put the issue beyond doubt once and for all.
But however it finally all turns out, the situation signifies that Michelin is today certain of winning its third consecutive Manufacturers' World Championship and its fifteenth since the series began in 1973.
Peugeot's strong championship position also owes much to the solid performance in Australia of second gun François Delecour. The Frenchman harvested a further three points for his team thanks to an intelligently managed run which earned him fourth place at the finish, one slot clear of the Hyundai-Michelin of Kenneth Eriksson.
The Accent WRC was effectively in fine form throughout the event, setting numerous top stage times, including two fastest times for the Swede. Although teammate Alister McRae failed to reach the finish after leaving the road on Day 2, the Korean firm will clearly be encouraged by its display in Perth with the 2001 Season looming large on the horizon.
The most disappointed team this weekend will surely be Ford. Although one-off team-member Tapio Laukannen brought his Focus WRC-Michelin home in sixth position, Colin McRae was sidelined when his engine failed on Leg 1, while Carlos Sainz was disqualified for stopping in an illegal place as he tried to lose time for tactical reasons later the same day. Both were forced to look on helplessly as their title chances slipped from their grasp.
With one round still to go in the 2000 World Rally Championship, and even though the title for makes has yet to be settled between Peugeot and Ford, Michelin is today certain of winning its third consecutive world manufacturers' crown.
This success is a reward for the performance of Michelin's range over the full season. Its products have won all but three of the thirteen rounds organised so far.
.on all types of terrain: wintry, dry and damp asphalt (Monte Carlo, Catalonia, Corsica, Sanremo), winter gravel (Sweden), smooth gravel (New Zealand, Finland, Australia) and rough gravel (Greece, Cyprus). .with three different manufacturer partners (Peugeot-Michelin 5, Ford-Michelin 3, Mitsubishi-Michelin 2) .with five different drivers (Marcus Gronholm 3, Tommi Makinen 2, Colin McRae 2, Gilles Panizzi 2, Carlos Sainz 1).
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP POSITIONS AFTER 13 ROUNDS
DRIVERS MC S EAK P E RA GR NZ FIN CH F I AUS GB Total Marcus Gronholm (FIN) M 0 10 0 6 2 6 0 10 10 0 2 3 6 - 55 Richard Burns (GB) 0 2 10 10 6 10 0 0 0 3 3 0 4 - 48 Colin McRae (GB) M 0 4 0 0 10 0 10 6 6 6 0 1 0 - 43 Carlos Sainz (E) M 6 0 3 4 4 0 6 4 0 10 4 2 0 - 43 Tommi Makinen (FIN) M 10 6 0 0 3 4 0 0 3 2 0 4 10 - 42 Frangois Delecour (F) M 0 0 - 2 0 0 0 0 1 4 6 6 3 - 22 Gilles Panizzi (F) M 0 - 0 - 1 - - - - - 10 10 0 - 21
MANFACTURERS MC S EAK P E RA GR NZ FIN CH F I AUS GB Total Peugeot-Michelin M 0 11 0 9 3 6 2 10 13 4 16 16 9 - 99 Ford-Michelin M 6 4 3 4 14 0 16 10 6 16 4 5 0 - 88 Subaru 4 5 16 10 6 13 4 0 2 4 5 1 4 - 74 Mitsubishi-Michelin M 12 6 0 2 3 6 0 0 4 2 0 4 10 - 49 Seat 3 0 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 - 9 Skoda-Michelin M 1 - 3 1 0 - 3 - - 0 - 0 - - 8 Hyundai-Michelin M - 0 - 0 0 1 0 3 1 - 0 0 2 - 7