Defending World Champion Petter Solberg came out on top of what proved to be a nailbiting battle in the fourth round of the 2004 World Championship. In an event that saw six leadership changes, including two during the incident-packed final day,...
Defending World Champion Petter Solberg came out on top of what proved to be a nailbiting battle in the fourth round of the 2004 World Championship. In an event that saw six leadership changes, including two during the incident-packed final day, the Subaru driver pipped three-times Rally New Zealand winner Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot-Michelin) by the slender margin of 5.9 seconds. Ford-Michelin's Markko Märtin claimed 3rd place. The result leaves four drivers (Märtin, Sébastien Loeb, Grönholm and Solberg) covered by just three points in the Drivers' championship, while Michelin's partners Ford (1st), Citroën (2nd) and Peugeot (3rd) continue to top the Manufacturers' classification.
Petter Solberg collected his first win of the 2004 season in New Zealand after a fiercely-fought weekend that produced no fewer than six changes of leader. The Subaru driver initially took first place from Ford-Michelin's Markko Märtin after the second of Thursday evening's two runs through the short Manukau super-special but he was then helpless when Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot-Michelin) turned on the speed as the field headed for the classic Kiwi rally territory north of Auckland.
By the end of Friday's first group of stages, the Finn was in front, but he then threw much of his hard work away when he rolled his car on SS6, losing some 40 seconds in the process. Fortunately, another 307 WRC driver in the person of his teammate Harri Rovanperä was waiting in the wings to inherit the lead before Solberg regained top spot after two more runs through the Manukau super-special during the evening.
Saturday's action saw Rovanperä unable to match his pace of the previous day but Grönholm piled on the pressure once more to home in on Solberg's Subaru. Yet the Peugeot star's bid was again thwarted when mechanical problems ('launch control' system, then transmission) cost him a handful of valuable seconds.
Even so, as the competition entered its final day, the Finn was close enough to prevent his Norwegian rival from relaxing and, indeed, Solberg was eventually pushed into a mistake as he struck a rock and span on Sunday's third test.
That incident allowed Grönholm to squeeze back in front... by a single second! But still the scrap wasn't over. Two stages from home, it was the Peugeot driver's turn to spin, effectively handing victory to Solberg by the margin of 5.9 seconds, a result that allows the reigning champ to close the gap with the 2004 championship's front-runners, Markko Märtin (Ford-Michelin), Sébastien Loeb (Citroën-Michelin) and Grönholm. Märtin (3rd in New Zealand) and Loeb (4th) both lost ground because of their unfavourable start order on Day 1 and, despite some top stage times, neither figured prominently in the fight for victory. Rovanperä ultimately finished in 5th position, one place clear of Carlos Sainz who, like Loeb, spent much of the rally trying to adjust the set-up of his Xsara WRC to the unique Rally New Zealand roads.
IN ALL CONDITIONS… The drama-packed 2004 Rally New Zealand saw Michelin drivers claim fastest time over 17 of the event's 23 stages*, the French tyre firm's range successfully covering the full spetrum of conditions encountered in the course of the weekend (essentially warm and dry).
However, the ding-dong battle at the sharp end of the leaderboard and the high number of incidents (spins, roll) that affected the pair duelling for victory underline to what extent this - as is so often the case in New Zealand - was a true drivers' rally.
(*) including one equal fastest time with Solberg (SS3).
ON TOP… Despite the weekend's result, victory for Michelin runners in the first three other rounds of the 2004 World Championship (Monte Carlo, Sweden, Mexico) mean that Michelin's partners currently fill the top three places in the both the Manufacturers' (Ford, Citroën, Peugeot) and Drivers' (Märtin, Loeb, Grönholm) title chases.