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Gronholm proves again he is 'Mr Finland'

20 August 2006

BP Ford number one driver, Marcus Gronholm took the victory on the Neste Oil Rally Finland on Sunday, the tenth round in the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship and in the process notched up his sixth win in seven years on his home event.

Gronholm led practically from the off, excluding the super-special on Thursday evening, which was won by Sebastien Loeb.

When the event began 'proper' on Friday, heavy rain greeted the 101 starters as they headed off into the forests. That didn't affect Gronholm though and he was fastest through the first loop to establish an 11.7 second lead. Although Loeb won SS5 and SS6 and moved up into second, Gronholm was second through both and extended his overall advantage. By the end of the opening day the Finn had notched up two more stages win and went into the overnight halt with a 12 second cushion.

Leg two was generally dry and bright and started with Gronhom and Loeb split by a whisker. Gronholm won the first test of the day while Loeb was quickest through the next one. However the third test on Saturday would prove to be the turning point and when Loeb hit a rock in SS12, losing 30 odd seconds, the battle was effectively over. Gronholm though, despite saying he eased off, proceeded to win all the remaining stages to end the second leg over a minute in front.

Unsurprisingly little changed on Sunday and Gronholm paced himself through the final four stages and to his fourth win of the season.

Loeb had to settle for second, but he was pleased with his form and the fact he could match the times of Gronholm, especially given the Finn's experience and record on this round.

Indeed Loeb won five stages in total and prior to SS12 was definitely in contention. 5 kilometres before the finish of the Ouninpohja Ita 1 test though he clipped a large bolder on the apex and the impact burst his Xsara's front-left tyre. The car arrived at the time control with shredded rubber flailing from its wheel and while a number of other drivers' also hit the same rock, including Gronholm, this time it was Loeb who had the misfortune. After that he eased off aware that Marcus was now too far ahead and as such he paced himself through the remaining stages, doing enough to ensure he matched the pace of Mikko Hirvonen, who was third.

Second though was far from a disaster for the Frenchman and while Gronholm took 2 points out of his lead, he still enjoys a 31 point advantage with just six events to go. That third title is getting closer and closer but he will have to wait at least one more year now until he can again bid to try to win 'The Rally of the Thousand Lakes', as it used to be known, for the first time.

BP Ford number two driver, Mikko Hirvonen took the final podium place, 30 seconds behind Loeb's Kronos Citroen. Mikko began the event strongly on Friday and was right up there with Gronholm on the first three tests. As the first day progressed though he slipped back unable to match the pace of the leading two. On Saturday, following Petter Solberg's exit he was under no real pressure and concentrated on getting it to the finish. He was determined though to give his home supporters something to smile about and promptly ended the event on Sunday by winning all four of the day's stages. A podium was a dream result for him, especially as he grew up in Jyvaskyla, the host town.

OMV Peugeot's Henning Solberg was fourth, not quite making the podium he has targeted for the second half of the season, but still nonetheless getting a top result and one that is incidentally his best this year. Henning had no issues throughout, except for minor problems with his brakes. Gigi Galli was just one place further back in another Peugeot 307, however the Italian was driving one run by BSA, not Bozian Racing. Galli put in a very good performance, especially considering his last outing was back in May in Sardinia. Indeed it was only his fourth outing with the Pirelli-backed Peugeot and only his third time on gravel.

Janne Tuohino took sixth in his PH Sport-run Citroen Xsara, followed by Mitsubishi privateer, Jussi Valimaki and Jan Kopecky, who rounded out the top eight in his Czech Rally team Skoda Fabia WRC.

Manfred Stohl finished the event in ninth, in the second OMV Peugeot after losing bucket loads of time on day one in the second loop. Stohl had intercom issues in SS5, which meant he couldn't hear his co-driver and then had an off in SS6. The latter incident cost the OMV Peugeot ace more than 5 minutes. He ended the first leg in 18th position, but gradually hauled himself back up the leaderboard on day two and three, to scoop 5 manufacturers' points for the team.

Stobart VK's Matthew Wilson also had to battle his way back up the standings and he ended the event one place further back. Wilson Jr lost over 3 minutes on SS2 when he had to stop to change a puncture, without that he would probably have finished around eighth.

Chris Atkinson and Kosti Katajmaki were the only other two drivers' eligible to score manufacturers' points who made it to the finish - they ended up in 13th and 14th place respectively behind Group N winner, Anton Alen and Patrik Flodin. Atkinson finished the first day in sixth in the second works Subaru Impreza, but lost loads and loads of time on the first loop on Saturday when he had gearbox problems that left him stuck in third. After losing over 12 minutes as a result of that he was never going to get a good result and as such he used the remaining stages to test for the next event in Japan.

Katajamaki started well on Friday and was running as high as eighth when he had to retire from the first leg after hitting a rock in SS7. He re-started under the SupeRally and despite hitting another rock in SS12, the same one that cost Loeb 30 seconds, he continued to make progress and finished up taking the final manufacturers' point for the Stobart squad.

There were three significant retirements all going out on day two, namely Subaru team leader, Petter Solberg and Kronos duo, Xavier Pons and Daniel Sordo.

Solberg crashed out in SS11, the first run through the 13.98 kilometre Ouninpohja Lansi stage. Just 700 metres from the start, on a fast section, the rear of Petter's Impreza drifted wide over a crest and touched a bank, launching the vehicle into a series of rolls. Solberg and co-driver Phil Mills were shaken but uninjured in the crash, but their Impreza was too badly damaged to continue.

Xavier Pons also crashed out in the same test, rolling his Kronos-run Citroen Xsara WRC. Immediately after their off Pons and his co-driver, Carlos del Barrio rang the Belgian-based squad to confirm they were both OK.

Sordo went out on the Ouninpohja Lansi stage too, but on the second run through it as SS14. Sordo's Xsara WRC left the road straight after a jump and while Sordo and co-driver Marc Marti were uninjured, the mechanical damage to the car meant they could not continue.

In the Junior WRC, Guy Wilks took the win, heading home a Suzuki 1-2, with his team-mate, Per-Gunnar Andersson second, over 2.5 minutes further back. Wilks took the lead in the JWRC on Saturday, after Kris Meeke went out in SS15. The Englishman won seven of the eight stages on Saturday and he and P-G took two a piece on Sunday.

Matti Rantanen completed the JWRC podium in his Honda Civic Type R, with Julien Pressac fourth - the best placed of the Citroen C2 runners. Jozef Beres, Jaan Molder, Patrik Sandell and Martin Prokop rounded out the top eight.

The WRC now heads to Japan in two weeks time, the event running from September 1-3.


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