The 2001 FIA World Rally Championship reached its conclusion today and the Subaru crew of Richard Burns and Robert Reid have been crowned world champions, taking the title to Britain for the second time in six years. In the Manufacturers' Championship, Peugeot scoops the honours for the second consecutive year, the French manufacturer taking maximum points in three of the last four events.
Mitsubishi Motors rounded off a victorious season in which the World Cup was claimed in Sanremo by dominating the leaderboard in the Group N production car category. Driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Peru's Ramon Ferreyros finished a close second, just 2.8 seconds behind British driver David Higgins, after the most exciting battle of the rally. In a telling display of reliability, Mitsubishi drivers took 11 of the first 12 places in the production class.
The anticipated showdown in the Rally of Great Britain was over almost before it began, the retirements of Tommi Makinen and Colin McRae slashing the four-horse race into two almost instantly. For Championship outsider Carlos Sainz, an early puncture put paid to almost any hopes of victory and the Spaniard was ultimately withdrawn by Ford after yesterday's incident involving spectators. In a sport that can deal cruel blows, the events have almost overshadowed a faultless performance by out-going champion Marcus Gronholm, who won the Rally of Great Britain for the first time in his career, and a measured drive by Burns as he cruised to third position and his first world title.
The final leg of the Rally of Great Britain and the 2001 FIA World Rally Championship dawned wet and windy, the crews facing treacherous conditions in the closing four stages to the northwest of Cardiff. Gronholm, having pulled out nearly two minutes, was under no pressure from his rivals, but Peugeot team-mate Harri Rovanpera powered into second position as Burns eased the pace, all too aware that he could even drop to fourth to clinch the title. Behind the leading trio, Hyundai's Alister McRae finished a fine fourth overall in his last outing with the Korean manufacturer before joining Mitsubishi next season.
Ramon Ferreyros was the Group N leader for much of the rally on his first appearance in Britain this year and came within seconds of a dramatic victory in his Lancer Evolution.
"We have tried very hard all through the rally and I am very pleased with this result. Of course it would have been nice to win, but conditions have been so difficult today, with a lot of aquaplaning", Ferreyros commented.
Promising British driver Alistair Ginley put in the drive of his life to take third in Group N, a career-best result in his Mitsubishi Carisma GT, overhauling Swede Stig Blomqvist with the finish practically in sight.
"It's like a dream come true for us. We made a steady start, but things just got better and better as the rally went on. Conditions have been pretty tricky today, but I'm thrilled with the result", Ginley said.
Fourth in Group N went to former World Champion Blomqvist, after a finely paced drive in his ultra-reliable Carisma GT, while Piet Bijvelds was fifth in a similar car. Kenneth Backlund, a former winner, retired with transmission problems in the last stage.
Gabriel Pozzo of Argentina had already clinched the 2001 Group N world title (subject to FIA confirmation), extending a victorious run that Mitsubishi drivers began in 1995.
While 11 months of heated competition over four continents has come to an end, there is little respite for anyone involved in the FIA World Rally Championship. The 2002 season starts in the middle of January in the tiny principality of Monaco but, before then, each of the seven competing manufacturers have asphalt, ice and snow tests to conduct in the French Alps and Scandinavia.
Changes in the sporting regulations mean that each of the 14 events in the 2002 FIA World Rally Championship will have a maximum of 90 entries, 30 of which are expected to be world rally cars. A manufacturer also need not nominate specific crews to score points in the Manufacturers' Championship; by registering three cars, a make can benefit from points scored by its two highest placed entries. In another change to the rules, the World Cup for Drivers of Production Cars - expected to have 30 entrants - will be fought out in seven events and Mitsubishi again expects to dominate having taken victory at the highest level in all but one of the last 29 rallies. The success of this year's FIA Super 1600 Championship has also prompted a greater emphasis on the up-and-coming talent and, having been re-named the FIA Junior World Championship, the Super 1600 contenders will contest the remaining seven events not included in the Group N World Cup.