Subaru driver Petter Solberg has scored his first victory at FIA World Rally Championship level on the closing round of this year's series, the Rally of Great Britain. The Norwegian and his Welsh co-driver Philip Mills fought past their close rivals Markko Martin and Michael Park on this morning's first stage, and they fended off the Ford pairing thereafter to notch up their breakthrough victory. Ford's double world champion Carlos Sainz scored his fifth podium finish of the year in third overall. Yet again, the Welsh weather was kind to crews today, as clear blue skies remained over the south of the country until the finish in Cardiff this afternoon. But the slippery conditions underfoot still caught out a few of the competitors, including outgoing world champion Richard Burns, who slid off on the penultimate stage, and Frenchman Sebastien Loeb, who was forced to retire with suspension damage on his Citroen.
Technical: Both Petter Solberg and Tommi Mäkinen enjoyed reliability from their Impreza WRC2002s today. Mäkinen did complain, however, about a switch to Pirelli's wider KM tyre for the day's opening (long) stage, Resolfen. Solberg also had to downtune his engine in the closing kilometres of the final stage after concerns about its health. Sporting: Petter Solberg got his wish this morning, when some of the day's first and longest stage, Resolfen, was shrouded in fog. The Norwegian attacked overnight leader Markko Martin with a vengeance and it paid off, as he barged past the Estonian to claim a useful lead after just one stage. He admitted that he took things too easily on the next stage, where Martin recouped some of his lost time, but Solberg regrouped to score fastest time in the day's penultimate stage and at least allow himself a relatively comfortable run through the last test on his way to his and his Welsh co-driver Philip Mills' maiden WRC rally win. The 10 points also promoted Solberg to second in the drivers' championship. His team-mate Tommi Mäkinen claimed fourth at the finish, although he had benefited from Richard Burns' late retirement. Mäkinen himself had to fight off Colin McRae today and despite concerns about his tyre choice in Resolfen, the four-times world champion did enough to keep the Scot at bay and score three manufacturers' points for Subaru.
Quotes: Petter Solberg said: "I just can't believe it! I have to thank everyone in the team - all the crew, mechanics and engineers - and also Phil, of course, who's been terrific. I had a late scare when I had to preserve the engine in the final few kilometres but in the end, we still set the fastest time! To get second in the championship after such a long year and so many hard events is terrific as well - I really just want to enjoy the moment."
Philip Mills said: "It's an incredible feeling. Any win is special but the first one is always extra sweet and to do it on home soil, only an hour and a half from my house, is pretty amazing. Petter's driven superbly on so much of this year's championship but he's had bad luck - I'm just glad it's all come good and we've broken the duck. And to finish second in the drivers' championship is fantastic." Subaru World Rally Team Principal David Lapworth said: "We knew we had quite a good package for this event and once Marcus was out yesterday and it was between Petter and Markko, we were optimistic that he could come through for us. We're obviously pleased, but now we have to start really hard work to get Petter and Tommi (Mäkinen) as good a chance as possible to score more wins in 2003."
Technical: The Focus RS WRC02s of Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Markko Martin have been reliable today. Mark Higgins, meanwhile, complained of a faulty intercom that had squeaked badly during much of the day's first test, Resolfen.
Sporting: Markko Martin confessed to being too cautious in the foggier stretches of Resolfen this morning and his approach cost him dearly, since it allowed Petter Solberg to barge past and set up a useful lead for the last three stages. Martin retaliated strongly in Rheola to claim back seven seconds from his Norwegian rival but then in the penultimate stage, he failed to find the right rhythm again and handed the same margin back to the leader. Martin thus had to settle for second overall at the finish, narrowly missing out on his first WRC rally win. Carlos Sainz, meanwhile, felt that he could wring no more performance from his car this morning and it looked as though the Spaniard was going to miss out on a fifth podium finish of the year when Richard Burns moved past him and into third. But when the Briton slid off on the penultimate stage, Sainz was handed back the place. Colin McRae tried to close in on Tommi Mäkinen this morning but the Finn held off the 1995 world champion, who thus finished fifth on his final outing for the Ford team. Ford's fourth entry, Mark Higgins, benefited from the retirements of Sebastien Loeb and Richard Burns as he finished in sixth. He'd spent much of the final day experimenting a little with his car's set-up in an attempt to find the same speed as yesterday. Quotes: Markko Martin said: "Of course I'm a little disappointed not to have won but I've learnt an awful lot in the last few days about how to deal with situations like this. We have to take the positive points out of here and we've set a really fast pace with Petter without making any real mistakes, on a rally where a lot of the top guys have gone off. Petter drove at 100 percent and I was at 99 percent - ultimately, that was the difference today."
Carlos Sainz said: "It's been a hard rally, as always, although I think the weather has maybe helped because we haven't had rain or fog like usual. I'm sure that Markko will win a rally in the near future. He and Petter both drove well here."
Technical: Richard Burns enjoyed good reliability from his 206 WRCs today, but team-mates Harri Rovanperä and Gilles Panizzi weren't so lucky. Rovanperä lost hydraulic pressure in his car's differentials towards the end of Rheola and had to complete all of Margam Park 1 with the same problem, and Panizzi lost his car's brakes halfway through this morning's first stage, Resolfen.
Sporting: Richard Burns looked as though he was going to at least score a podium place on his home round of the championship after he set second-fastest time in Resolfen this morning. That pace was enough to move him past Carlos Sainz and into third overall. But in Margam Park 1, the penultimate stage of the rally, the outgoing world champion was caught out by a slippery braking area and he put the rear end of his 206 off the road and down a bank. He was unable to regain the stage and was forced to retire. Team-mate Harri Rovanperä lost time this morning with a loss of hydraulic pressure in his 206's differentials, but he still managed to inch past Juha Kankkunen and Freddy Loix in the last stage to finish seventh and score a manufacturers' point for Peugeot.. Gilles Panizzi had brake problems this morning but still finished in 11th.
Quotes: Richard Burns said: "It was my mistake. I was trying pretty hard and I just got caught out under braking. It's been really quite slippery on the roads, despite the fact that it's sunny overhead. Of course I'm disappointed, but it looks like I'll be fourth in the championship instead of second and maybe that's a better reflection of our season, because it hasn't been the best one. However, I'm already looking forward to getting back in the car for testing and challenging in 2003." Harri Rovanpera said: "This has been such a hard rally. We've had so many little problems that have cost us time - even this morning, when we were making progress, the hydraulics went so we were left with rear-wheel drive and rear braking only. So after everything that's happened, I'm glad just to get points for the team."
Technical: The two remaining Accent WRC3s of Freddy Loix and Juha Kankkunen have enjoyed a troublefree final leg.
Sporting: Freddy Loix and Juha Kankkunen knew they would struggle to keep Harri Rovanperä at bay today but when the Finn's Peugeot hit problems, it gave the Belgian and his Finnish team-mate a fighting chance. Ultimately, however, the 206 was just slightly too quick for the Accents - Kankkunen finished ninth, with Loix claiming eighth, just one tenth of a second behind Rovanperä. But his result still earned Hyundai a manufacturers' point, lifting the Korean marque to fourth in the makes' series. Quotes: Freddy Loix said: "Today was all about keeping position and making sure we got to the finish, because I've retired from too many rallies this year. I'm glad that we had a good, clean run on this event and once we made a few changes to the suspension yesterday, I've been happy with the car as well. It gives us some encouragement for next season, because it's clear that we're making progress in terms of speed and reliability. It's great to get the result for Hyundai that lifts us up to fourth in the manufacturers' championship - all of the guys in the team deserve it."
Technical: The Octavia WRCs of Toni Gardemeister, Kenneth Eriksson and Roman Kresta have all been reliable today.
Sporting: Skoda's three drivers started today determined just to reach the finish, and they all achieved their goals. Toni Gardemeister benefited from the retirements of Sebastien Loeb and Richard Burns as he bagged tenth, while Kenneth Eriksson and Roman Kresta finished 13th and 15th respectively.
Quotes: Toni Gardemeister said: "I don't think there was much more speed in the car than we showed this weekend. For today, we softened the suspension a little bit to try to get more grip, because that's been our biggest problem all rally. It did improve things, but then I had to take some of the rougher sections quite steadily when we were driving through stages for the second time. I would have liked to have got a top-10 finish at the end of the year but there just hasn't been a big enough retirement rate for that."
Technical: Citroen's sole remaining Xsara WRC driver Sebastien Loeb had not reported any significant mechanical problems today, but in the penultimate stage of the event he was forced to retire after a front-left wishbone gave way due to impacts with rocks.
Sporting: Sebastien Loeb had hoped to keep hold of a points finish today, even though he was passed by Colin McRae on this morning's first stage. But with just one stage remaining, the Frenchman suffered a late retirement when the left-front wishbone broke on his Xsara WRC. Quotes: Sebastien Loeb said: "We did some good work with the car on this event and I think we have made it much easier to handle on conditions like we have seen in Wales. I'm disappointed not to finish, of course, but I know I can look forward now to working with Colin (McRae) next year to improve the car and make it more efficient."
FIA World Junior Championship News
Spanish driver Daniel Sola has claimed the FIA World Junior Championship in the best possible style, by winning the category outright on the final round, the Rally of Great Britain. Sola and his co-driver Alex Romani reached the Cardiff podium this afternoon almost three minutes clear of their nearest rivals after three days of intense competition that slashed through the Junior WRC field to leave only six finishers.
Sola entered the event a single point behind Andrea Dallavilla in the championship standings, and only one of these two drivers would be able to lift the title. But that didn't stop their rivals from getting involved in the final battle. Briton Gwyndaf Evans claimed first blood at the opening superspecial in Cardiff on Thursday evening, then Janne Tuohino grabbed the initiative once the crews hit the forests on Friday morning.
That first day saw three changes of lead: Sola moved clear of Tuohino in SS3, but then a puncture in the very next stage handed the top spot back to the young Finn, who held it as far as the overnight halt. Dallavilla, meanwhile, had hit problems with two punctures on two separate stages. Saturday started with the monster Resolfen stage - the longest of the rally - and its 57km were all that Sola required to take back the lead, after Tuohino had to stop and change a puncture. Indeed, the long distance proved a problem for many of the S1600-based Junior WRC crews; British hopefuls Niall McShea and Gwyndaf Evans each had to perform similar maintenance to Tuohino, while Dallavilla did the same and then discovered that he actually had two flat tyres.
By Sunday morning, then, Sola had already amassed a useful advantage and he kept a cool head as he threaded his Saxo through the worst of the conditions in the closing four stages to score his third Junior WRC win of the year in comfortable fashion. He and Romani had just shy of three minutes in hand over Ulsterman McShea by the finish, while Italian Giandomenico Basso lost time with a late puncture but still brought his Fiat Punto home in third to make it three different manufacturers on the podium. Fourth-placed Janne Tuohino was satisfied with his finish, meanwhile, since it guaranteed him third in the title race, behind Sola and Dallavilla. The Italian came home sixth and last of the Junior WRC finishers.
Sola said: "I'm really happy with this result. This has been a difficult event for me with some slippery conditions, and remember that I had not won on gravel before this rally. There were many problems for the Junior WRC drivers in the conditions but we have finished with a good advantage, so I'm pleased. Next year, I hope to maybe take a World Rally Car to three or four world championship rallies, or maybe try to learn more of the events with a Group N car."
Despite the unseasonably clear weather, the slippery and occasionally rough Welsh stages resulted in a high rate of attrition among the Junior WRC competitors. All three Suzuki Ignis entries crashed out on the opening morning, Kosti Katajamaki rolled his VW Polo out of contention, Sven Haaf's Opel refused to restart on the second day and Evans' MG succumbed to rear wheel hub failure in the closing stages. Next year, the FIA Junior World Rally Championship will expand to seven events. The action starts again with the famous Monte Carlo Rally on January 22-26.