Thrilling season finale in Wales.
The Rally of Great Britain reached a thrilling climax in Wales today as Petter Solberg and Phil Mills claimed an emotional maiden win at World Rally Championship level in the final outing for the current specification Impreza WRC. The Norwegian fought neck and neck with Markko Martin all day, who was also vying for his first win in the series, but kept his nerve to claim the plaudits and admiration of the entire rally fraternity back in Cardiff this afternoon.
Marcus Gronholm will be crowned 2002 FIA World Rally Champion (subject to FIA confirmation), the Finn having claimed his second title on the 12th round of the series in New Zealand. As the contenders went into the Rally of Great Britain, no fewer than six drivers were fighting for second position however, and Solberg's 10 points for victory catapult him up the standings from seventh to second, runner-up in the series. In doing so, the Subaru driver has overhauled three former World Champions (Richard Burns, Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz) and will undoubtedly be celebrating his 28th birthday tomorrow in the fine style.
In the Manufacturers' Championship, Peugeot will claim its third consecutive World title (subject to FIA confirmation) and Ford has retained its second position. Ford has however gone into the history books as being the first manufacturer to score points on every round of the series since World Rally Cars were introduced in 1997.
The third and final leg of the Rally of Great Britain started early this morning as the 52 remaining crews headed north-west from Cardiff at 05:30 hrs for the concluding four stages and 138.50 competitive kilometres. In contrast to many of the Championship events, the final leg was the longest and potentially toughest of the rally and guaranteed a nail-biting finish to the season with so many battles going on at the top of the leaderboard. Despite early morning fog in the opening stage, blue skies and sunshine emerged throughout the day making 10 degree temperatures feel much warmer.
Behind the battle between Solberg and Martin, Carlos Sainz claimed a comfortable third position in seemingly his last rally with Ford Rallye Sport, while Tommi Makinen (Subaru) and Colin McRae (Ford) fought hard for fourth. The Finn ultimately claimed the position, despite a puncture and broken windscreen during the day. McRae therefore picked up two points for fifth, having climbed from a leg one 17th position. Ford's impressive finishing record was also underlined by Mark Higgins' performance, the Welshman steering the team's fourth Focus home in sixth position and claiming the final drivers' point in his first World Championship event of the year. Freddy Loix pushed the Welshman hard but ultimately ran out of kilometres and was even overhauled by a charging Harri Rovanpera, by one-tenths of a second, in the final stage of the rally. Rovanpera therefore claimed two points for Peugeot, despite hydraulic problems earlier in the day, and Freddy Loix took the final manufacturer point in eighth position. His team-mate Juha Kankkunen finished ninth and Skoda's Toni Gardemeister was 10th.
The final leg also saw the retirement of more of the leading crews. Sebastien Loeb was forced out in stage 16 from seventh position with broken front suspension on the Citroen, and Richard Burns (Peugeot) made an uncharacteristic mistake on home territory by sliding off the road and into retirement in the same stage.
The FIA World Rally Championship contenders have little opportunity to sit and reflect on the year, being that the 2003 series kicks off in less than 10 weeks. However, before next year's season opener in Monte Carlo (24-26 January), a hectic schedule of testing lies in wait for the seven competing manufacturers, each of whom will be racking up kilometres on asphalt, ice and snow in the French Alps and Scandinavia in preparation for the first two events of the 2003 FIA World Rally Championship season.