It was a weekend of firsts for Marcus Gronholm: the first drive in the works Ford Focus WRC 2006, the first World Rally Championship win on tarmac, and, most importantly, his first Monte Carlo Rally victory. Gronholm may not have been the...
It was a weekend of firsts for Marcus Gronholm: the first drive in the works Ford Focus WRC 2006, the first World Rally Championship win on tarmac, and, most importantly, his first Monte Carlo Rally victory.
Gronholm may not have been the fastest man on the road -- that honor belonged to WRC champion and defending Monte Carlo winner Sebastien Loeb -- but he was fast enough, and he kept his car on the road when it mattered most.
"This is the best feeling," the happy Gronholm smiled at the finish. "I had a good lead and didn't need to get involved in a massive fight. It is my first win on asphalt, although it wasn't 'pure' asphalt because there was so much ice and snow. It is fantastic to score so well on the first rally and I'm really looking forward to driving on the snow in Sweden on the next round."
There has been no love lost between Gronholm and Monte Carlo in the past, and double world champion's best result in the French mountains to date had been a fourth place.
"I didn't think a victory was possible here before the rally," he admitted. "My dream was a podium, but this is the best feeling. It is a fantastic day for everyone in the team and one that I will always remember,"
Loeb, who finished second in a Kronos Citroen Xsara WRC, was just over a minute adrift, in spite of winning ten stages to Gronholm's two; the difference was all in Loeb overcooking a corner, spinning off the road and sliding down the hillside on Friday's final stage. The Frenchman was unable to continue, and took instead a five-minute penalty for missing the special.
"Of course I'm very disappointed to have made the mistake on Friday, especially for the team," Loeb said. "I can only blame myself. On the other hand, I can honestly say that from the inside of the car this rally turned into a thrilling chase, the sort of battle that I really like. It showed us that our Xsara can more than stand up to the opposition, and that my new team is working really well."
That mistake dropped Loeb to eighth, 3:40 behind Gronholm, and set the scene for the remainder of the weekend. Gronholm, uncomfortable in the icy conditions, drove cautiously and with an eye on the watch, while Loeb was driving with abandon to make up as much time as possible.
And Gronholm did survive, even with three passes in all -- one each day -- over the treacherous Col de Turini section, where he crashed out in 2005, spinning off the road after hitting snow thrown on the road by spectators.
"Today was again difficult," he explained. "The first stage was really hard because there was a lot of ice and sometimes the car was skating. There were many tricky corners and so I drove with great care. My right knee hurts because the position of the throttle pedal was not quite right, but that was my only problem this weekend, so that's not too bad!"
Loeb did all he could, but Gronholm's lead was insurmountable in the end. He did pass every other car, flying into second on the final stage; Toni Gardemeister, driving a privateer Peugeot 307 WRC for Astra, held second place by six seconds entering the final stage, the last of the famous Col de Turini crossings.
And while Manfred Stohl stole the show on the final stage, beating Loeb by almost 19 seconds, Loeb was easily 27 seconds faster than Gardemeister, clinching the second podium spot. Gardemeister had said that he was willing to take risks to keep second, but this was just too much for him.
And Gronholm? He was taking no risks on his final encounter with the famed pass, and gave up a minute to Loeb. But with a two-minute gap entering the final stage, and the first Monte Carlo victory at stake, caution was more than prudent for the Finn.
Gardemeister took third, then, 21 seconds behind Loeb, while Stohl, who stormed through to take the last two stage victories in an OMV-entered Peugeot 307 WRC, was fourth, 19 seconds adrift of Gardemeister.
After the top four, there was a big gap: Stephane Sarrazin took fifth for Subaru, three minutes and twenty seconds off Gronholm's time, and more than a minute and a half behind Stohl.
"I'm very pleased that we've finished in the points on the first round of the championship and with a new car," Sarrazin said. "Mechanically we've had no problems at all, but we were caught out by the weather on Friday and that cost us a lot of time. But it's a part of the game -- this time we lost but next time we might win. In performance terms the car is a big step forward already."
Chris Atkinson, who impressed in a 2005-spec Subaru Impreza WRC on Friday in spite of limited experience on asphalt, but lost much time on Saturday, today kept pace with tarmac specialist Sarrazin -- who was driving a current works Impreza -- and finished in sixth.
"We're ecstatic, really," Atkinson gushed at the finish. "Coming to our first Monte Carlo, to finish in the top six and to have such a good result all weekend is fantastic. Glenn and I drove exactly according to our pre event plan, we learned a lot and we'll head to Sweden in a very positive frame of mind. The conditions (in Sweden) suit me a bit better than the ones here and I'm looking forward to going back."
Mikko Hirvonen, in the second Ford Focus, was seventh, followed by Loeb's two Kronos teammates, Daniel Sordo in eighth, the final points-paying position and Xavier Pons in ninth. Sordo had been attacking Hirvonen, and was within 15 seconds of the Finn entering SS18, the final run through Col de Turini, but a hydraulic problem cost him the chance at seventh, and Sordo finished 55 seconds behind Hirvonen.
"To be at the end of the rally with a second-fastest stage time in our pockets, one championship point, and an intact car is fantastic," Sordo admitted, overcoming the disappointment of the mechanical problem. "Step by step I think I've learnt a lot since Friday and I can't wait to get to Sweden now to learn some more."
So while the number of "true" factory teams dropped significantly for the 2006 season, the Monte Carlo opener was none the worse for that, with the privately-entered Citroens, Peugeots and Skodas more than competitive -- and the impressive effort from Gronholm, a gravel specialist, gave the Ford team the first trophy of the season, and their first since 2004.