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Solberg faces challenges in NZ on final day

17 April 2004


World champion Petter Solberg takes a 20 second lead into tomorrow [Sunday]'s final day of Propecia Rally New Zealand, the fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

The Subaru driver faces a fierce challenge on the last day from defending Rally New Zealand champion Marcus Gronholm [Peugeot] and joint championship leader Markko Martin [Ford] when the rally heads for the final six special stages in the Raglan region of Waikato.

Solberg, who began the day with a five second advantage over Peugeot's Harri Rovanpera, moved to 25.6 seconds clear midway through the day in the Kaipara district in Northland. The effervescent Norwegian built on his lead with solid rather than his usual spectacular driving in the new Subaru Impreza.

The challenge from Rovanpera never eventuated, but it was the senior pro and fellow Finn, Gronholm who led the fight back, taking fastest time on four of the opening six special stages.

He was joined by Martin with the Estonian never out of the top two on seven of today's eight special stages.

The margin closed to 14.2sec going into the final stage of the day, before the world champion showed his fighting spirits with a superb effort to claim fastest time on the stage. He put five seconds on second fastest Sebastien Loeb [Citroen] and was able to extend the buffer to 19.5sec on Gronholm, with a further 4.7sec to Martin.

Loeb, the joint championship leader, finally showed his colours to win special stage 16 and move to fourth, but at one minute from the lead is not expected to play a significant part in the victory chase tomorrow.

"It's been a very tough day. I have struggled with the grip on the hard surface," Solberg said.

"I knew it could be good in the last stage of the day because the surface there is different. It is really a gravel stage compared to the previous ones where when it is clean, it as hard as tarmac.

"I feel confident for tomorrow because we start the day earlier and we should not have the problem of too soft tyres. Stages are very different in Raglan area compared to what they are here."

Spain's Daniel Sola meanwhile [Mitsubishi] will take a 10.1sec lead into the final day in the Production Car World Rally Championship.

It will be a tough fight on the final day to hold off Argentina's Marcos Ligato [Subaru Impreza] with overnight leader Manfred Stohl [Mitsubishi] fighting back to be 11.8 seconds behind Ligato in third place. Stohl dropped 50 seconds on Sola after gear selection problems on special stage 14.

The leading New Zealander is Masterton's Richard Mason [Subaru] who retained his advantage throughout the day. He goes into the final day in 18th place overall with a 4min 23sec lead from 65 Chris West [Subaru] in 25th place overall.

The final leg tomorrow [Sunday] returns to territory near Raglan on the west coast of North Island, south of Auckland, that was not used in 2003. It comprises two identical loops of three stages, covering 114.74km. The final test of each loop is the classic Whaanga Coast, one of the most spectacular stages in the entire championship, which runs alongside stunning coastal scenery for much of its route. Drivers leave Auckland at 05.00 and return for the ceremonial finish at 17.00 [all times local].


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