GrÃ¶nholm takes second in Japan after thrilling victory battle BP-Ford World Rally Team claimed a double podium on Rally Japan today after Marcus GrÃ¶nholm and Timo Rautiainen almost secured their third win in four events during a breathtaking...
Grönholm takes second in Japan after thrilling victory battle
BP-Ford World Rally Team claimed a double podium on Rally Japan today after Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen almost secured their third win in four events during a breathtaking final day's action. The Finns came within just 5.6sec of victory after their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car outgunned Sébastien Loeb in a thrilling final day shootout in the remote hills of Hokkaido island. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen finished third in another Focus RS.
Grönholm held a narrow lead over Loeb until two spins yesterday morning cost him that advantage, but the 38-year-old Finn promised to attack today in a bid to overturn the 25.6sec gap to the Frenchman. He had just five gravel speed tests in the hills north-west of the rally base of Obihiro, followed by a final pass over the short super special stage on the edge of the city in which to achieve his target - a total of 93.90km.
He was true to his word and two fastest times and a second quickest on the opening loop allowed a fully motivated Grönholm to narrow the margin to just 15.7sec. After service he regained another 6.9sec over the 17.04km Panke Nikorpet stage leaving the gap at just 8.8sec going into the last 24.88km forest test. Grönholm gave it his all and won the stage by 3.4sec but the margin ahead of the 1.30km super special stage was just too great to complete a sensational comeback.
"That was a really great fight with Seb, I was on the limit all day today," he said. "A win was possible but it just wasn't to be. I tried so hard to catch him and I just needed one more stage and a few extra kilometres and I would have done. I think Seb was worried but it's difficult to consistently beat him by eight or nine seconds on every stage which is what I had to do today. My mistakes yesterday cost me the win.
"It was a hard rally, especially with all the long liaison sections to and from the stages. But the Focus was again perfect and our tyres were really efficient in these conditions. It rained a lot before the rally and although it got drier as the event went on, there were plenty of muddy sections under the trees in the forests," added Grönholm, who remains second in the drivers' championship.
Hirvonen established a comfortable third on the opening two days and concentrated on preserving that today to secure his fourth podium in five rallies. He posted fastest time on the final stage, taking BP-Ford's tally to 16 wins from 27 stages. The result enabled Ford to close the gap at the top of the manufacturers' standings to just 11 points with five rounds remaining.
"It was quite an easy weekend for me in one way because I settled into third and wasn't challenged," said 26-year-old Hirvonen. "I've learned how to drive at a consistently fast pace and that's important. It's good to be fighting with Dani Sordo for championship position and I want to make sure I'm battling for a podium on every rally. It's a good feeling to step onto the podium after a difficult rally like this and it's important for Ford that we keep picking up good points finishes. My consistency has improved and now I need to get closer to Seb and Marcus."
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was thrilled by the rally long fight between Grönholm and Loeb. "It's the best and most exciting battle I have been involved in as a team manager. Marcus drove out of his skin to come back from that deficit and almost beat Seb. It was remarkable. Mikko delivered another good performance and he is maturing as a driver with every single event," he said.
Ford TeamRS director Jost Capito said: "Huge crowds lined the route here and that shows the enthusiasm in Japan for the WRC. It's fantastic for the Ford Focus to be so competitive here in such an important global car market."
News from our Rivals
Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) became the most successful driver in the sport's history by claiming his 27th WRC victory, moving ahead of Carlos Sainz in the all-time standings. Behind the BP-Ford duo, Chris Atkinson (Subaru) cruised through the final day to take fourth ahead of Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) who overcame gearbox problems. Dani Sordo (Citroen) was a comfortable sixth until he was held up by the stranded car of Luis Perez Companc (Ford) on the penultimate stage, losing more than a minute. That dropped him 1.2sec behind Toshi Arai (Subaru) in the final positions. Sordo was later excluded for not fastening his seat belts after leaving his car during the incident. Petter Solberg (Subaru) had continued brake problems this morning and dropped 3min 30sec, sliding from sixth to seventh. Gareth MacHale (Ford) retired three stages from the finish after hitting a bridge while Companc crashed out on the penultimate stage.
The championship returns to Europe for the first of two consecutive rounds in the eastern Mediterranean. The Cyprus Rally (21 - 24 September) is based in the coastal town of Limassol.