Peugeot on course for title double in New Zealand. Peugeot's 206 WRC is heading towards remarkable World Rally Championship double on the 12th round of this year's series, the Rally New Zealand, which continued today. The French team is now ...
Peugeot on course for title double in New Zealand.
Peugeot's 206 WRC is heading towards remarkable World Rally Championship double on the 12th round of this year's series, the Rally New Zealand, which continued today. The French team is now mathematically assured of an amazing third consecutive World Championship for Manufacturers title, and 206 WRC driver Marcus Gronholm is all-but-confirmed as 2002 drivers champion after a dramatic day on the gravel roads north of Auckland.
Today's schedule promised 10 testing stages - including the 59km Parahi/Ararua stage, the longest in the world championship outside of the Safari Rally - so there was still plenty of scope for leaderboard changes as the crews left Auckland at daybreak. Overnight leader Richard Burns and his Peugeot team-mate Gronholm were instantly the pacesetters, though, taking full advantage of roads swept clean of loose gravel by their rivals. Indeed, with Harri Rovanpera backing up their pace, Peugeot enjoyed the top three stage times on the day's first six stages.
Peugeot was effectively confirmed as manufacturers' champion after the last of those tests, when Ford driver Markko Martin slid off the road and out of the event. That removed any mathematical possibility of the 206s being denied a third straight makes' crown.
Gronholm entered this afternoon's loops of stages with only a faint hope of closing down Burns, who enjoyed a lead of 45 seconds after SS14. But on the next test, the Englishman slid off the road and rolled into retirement, effectively handing his pursuer a second world title. Although Peugeot's fourth driver, Gilles Panizzi, still has a mathematical chance of denying Marcus the crown, he would have to win all three remaining events and he ended today's final stage in eighth overall.
Marcus said: "Of course I'm very happy about the championship, although it's never nice when it happens like this, when your team-mate crashes out. But we have to look over the whole season and it's been a good one. Of course I was a little surprised to hear that Richard had crashed out - he was obviously pushing very hard - but it had been a good fight."
Gronholm's navigator Timo Rautiainen said: "It's quite a relief that the championship battle is basically over at last. But we still have to worry about the final two rounds of the season now - and already think about next year. Richard's shown here that he really has a feeling with the 206 now and I think we're going to have to fight hard everywhere in 2003." Burns said: "It was a fourth-gear right-hand bend and I slid a little bit wide. We had the wrong line then for a left-hander that was immediately next and that sent the car up into the air. We went over a fence and cartwheeled into the trees. I'm really disappointed, because I desperately wanted to take my first win for Peugeot and things were looking so good for that."
Rovanpera had expected Gronholm to charge this morning but the former Swedish Rally winner held off his fellow countryman for a couple of stages before Marcus moved past in the long 59km stage. Thereafter, Harri tried different settings on his car to try to find an answer to Gronholm's pace but he still lost a few seconds during the afternoon. He was promoted back to second when Burns crashed out, and he'll start tomorrow aiming to ensure yet another one-two finish for the team.
Harri said: "I won't be taking any really big risks to try to catch Marcus, but of course we'll keep trying because there are quite a few kilometres yet and you never know what can happen. But it's very good situation for Peugeot to have the first two positions again."
Team Total Peugeot Director Corrado Provera said: "It's actually been a difficult afternoon, because it's hard to take joy when it comes to you because of someone else's accident. And then there's Richard - he would have been a very deserving winner of this rally, and it would have been his first one with us, so we can only imagine how strong and deep his sadness is. But we have to remember that we had a target this year - to win the manufacturers' championship, and to make one of our drivers champion as well. And now both are in our pockets. I think that Marcus deserves it and also that Peugeot deserves it."
Tomorrow's final leg is a comparatively short blast after today's marathon, with just 90km of competition. But the last loop of stages contains six tests in quick succession, so even Gronholm and Rovanpera won't be able to relax until the final run through the Fyfe stage at lunchtime.