Marcus Gronholm was convincing on the muddy roads of Rally New Zealand, taking the win in the penultimate round of the World Rally Championship -- and, more importantly, the manufacturers' title for Ford. Marcus Gronholm and Timo ...
Marcus Gronholm was convincing on the muddy roads of Rally New Zealand, taking the win in the penultimate round of the World Rally Championship -- and, more importantly, the manufacturers' title for Ford.
"This is fantastic," he said after his 24th career victory, and his fourth in New Zealand. "It's a great feeling to win the rally and secure the world title for Ford on the same day."
"While we are very happy, we are also a bit surprised," Gronholm explained. "When I joined the team I expected a high performance level from the Focus RS WRC because it was a new car and to experience the fantastic level of reliability that we have enjoyed during the season was a big bonus. This wasn't such a hard rally as the Focus RS has been absolutely perfect."
With the 2007 drivers' champion, Sebastien Loeb, still recovering from a mountain-biking injury, there was no one who could touch Gronholm in Kiwi country. Gronholm finished 56 seconds ahead of his Ford Focus RS teammate, Mikko Hirvonen, and minutes in front of Loeb's Kronos Racing team, the OMV Peugeot team and the Subaru works team.
More importantly, though, the 1-2 finish clinched the manufacturers' title for Ford for the first time since 1979, when Bjorn Waldegard and Hannu Mikkola took the championship for Ford in the legendary Escort RS. That year, the two Ford teammates took victories in Portugal, Acropolis, Quebec, RAC Rally -- and New Zealand.
"I'm thrilled to be part of a world title-winning team," Hirvonen said. "I started my career in world rallying with Ford. Malcolm Wilson gave me the chance to prove myself at the beginning of my career and again this year, so it is even better to be here helping Ford to the title."
With a gap of two minutes to third-placed Manfred Stohl, Gronholm could afford to play it safe on the final leg and still clinch the title for Ford. However, even his "conservative" pace was sufficient to take five stage wins in the final six.
The final reckoning, then, showed Gronholm nearly a minute in front of his younger teammate, and over two-and-a-half minutes ahead of Stohl's privateer OMV Peugeot.
Xavier Pons set the fastest times in the final two stages -- including a tie with Gronholm on SS16 -- in a desperate last-ditch attempt to reclaim for Kronos Racing the third place that his teammate Daniel Sordo had lost to Stohl on Saturday afternoon, but he fell short by 16.8 seconds.
"It's a very special experience," Stohl said. "It's even more so since we beat very tough opponents and were able to confirm the success in Australia. The fight versus Pons and Sordo was a real challenge."
It was another impressive drive, and the third podium of the year, for Stohl, who has got stronger as the season has grown older. Going into the season finale, he is now only a single point behind Sordo in the fight for the fourth place in the championship.
For Kronos Racing, though, it was another disappointing weekend, with the two Citroen Xsaras well off the pace. Pons finished fourth, 2:56 behind Gronholm, and Sordo was another 25 seconds behind. With Loeb out of the lineup, the duo of Sordo and Pons has yet to crack the podium for the French privateer team.
"For the third time in succession, we've finished just off the podium," Pons explained, keeping a positive outlook on the results. "I think that we're getting there now. I really like fast roads and we found them here: I had a lot of fun even though the surfaces were very slippery."
Petter Solberg, too, was disappointed with a sixth-place finish in the works Subaru, especially after the second-place finish in Australia three weeks ago. However, he was never in contention on the second race in the antipodes, complaining about the lack of grip throughout the event.
"I tried as hard as I could but I've simply not been able to challenge the fastest guys this weekend," the Norwegian veteran admitted. "Of course it's very frustrating; I want to win rallies, and it's not much fun when that isn't possible, but I will keep positive and focus on improving the pace."
Luis Perez Companc took seventh for Stobart VK M-Sport in a 2004-spec Ford Focus, and Jari Latvala not only took the final points-paying position, but also scored the Class N victory in his Subaru Impreza WRX Spec C, some 16 minutes off Gronholm's pace.
Notably "Il Dottore", seven-time motorcycling world champion Valentino Rossi, finished eleventh, his first WRC finish, having crashed out of his previous attempt, the 2002 Rally Great Britain.
Rossi, driving a Subaru works-prepared 2005-spec Impreza WRC, drove steadily throughout the event Long White Cloud, picking up speed as he gained experience. His best result was a seventh place on SS7, where he outpaced 2004 world champion Solberg's 2006-spec works Subaru.
"I'm very happy," said Rossi. "First because I arrive at the end with no real damage to the car. I am tired, it was very hard but I am happy."
With Ford now holding a 25-point lead over Kronos in the manufacturers' standings and Loeb 11 points ahead of Gronholm, both championships have been decided. However, Rally Great Britain always seems to bring out the fighting spirit in the drivers -- and Stohl and Sordo still have some unfinished business as well.