Gronholm ends Ford's GB wait with Welsh win
3 December 2006
Having helped the BP Ford team to clinch its first manufacturers' title in 27 years in New Zealand, Marcus Gronholm ensured the Blue Oval ended a barren run of the same length on Wales Rally GB with victory in the 2006 WRC finale.
Gronholm led the event from the very first stage on Friday morning and saw his challenge aided when team-mate Mikko Hirvonen and then Petter Solberg, the only two people who seemed able to take the fight to the Finn, hit problems.
For Gronholm, the Welsh victory was his seventh of the season and ensures he ends the campaign just a single point behind champion Sebastien Loeb. Although that was aided by Loeb missing the final four rounds of the season through injury, Gronholm can now reflect on a missed opportunity with his roll on the opening leg of Rally Australia possibly being the difference between finishing as runner-up and clinching his third world title…
However, that mistake meant the title was no longer in reach as the WRC arrived in the forests of South Wales but it didn't mean Gronholm was taking it easy. Setting the pace through the opening Port Talbot stage, the 'Flying Finn' went on to post nine outright stage wins of the 17 available with his only minor blip coming on the final day, with a spin on the first run through Brechfa costing him 20 seconds. However with a comfortable lead already by the point, the spin only served as a reminder to Gronholm not to take anything for granted and he duly brought the car home to end Ford's long wait for a win on the British round of the WRC.
Behind Gronholm, Manfred Stohl brought the curtain down on a fine season at the wheel of the OMV Peugeot with a third consecutive podium finish – and one the carries him above Dani Sordo into fourth in the championship standings.
Stohl, who scored more than double the points of any other Manufacturer 2 driver during the season, was only outside the top three for one stage over the three days of competition in Wales and his decision to play it safe and not risk making a mistake from the start of the second day proved to be the correct one as he came home with an advantage of just under 20 seconds over Petter Solberg.
The Subaru driver went into the event looking to secure his fifth straight Wales Rally GB win, but the king of the Welsh forests was to endure a frustrating weekend. On the very first stage on Friday he hit trouble when his Impreza stalled and it was to be the first of many problems over the course of the weekend.
Having bounced back from the issue to lie second at the end of leg one, he lost time with damaged steering on leg two and then, while trying to fight back into second place, a spin on the final leg – leaving him to reflect on a winless campaign for the Banbury based squad.
Emerging on top of what had expected to be the closest fight of the final day with his best ever WRC result was Jari-Matti Latvala whose fourth place finish was also the best yet for the Stobart VK M-Sport team.
The young Finn outpaced rival Xavi Pons over the final four stages, repeat runs through Brechfa and Trawscoed, to take the position by over 40 seconds on his first run with the '06 specification Focus. Pons meanwhile could console himself with another solid points finish while deputising for champion Sebastien Loeb, although there was frustration at being unable to repeat the strong pace he displayed on leg two when he posted a series of top three stage times.
Chris Atkinson clinched sixth place after a tough weekend, losing a bundle of time on leg two when he stalled in stage six. Behind the Subaru man, Dani Sordo bade farewell to the Citroen Xsara with a seventh place finish – the Kronos man fighting back from a damaged gearbox on leg two to close in on Francois Duval and finally pass the Belgian driver on the penultimate stage. Eighth for Duval however was still a good result in the First Motorsport Skoda Fabia, leg two in particular seeing the former Citroen driver posting some encouraging stage times despite saying he was only driving at 70 per cent.
Rounding out the top ten were Harri Rovanpera and Jan Kopecky while Henning Solberg could only climb back as high as eleventh after rolling his OMV Peugeot onto its side on the opening leg. Matthew Wilson took twelfth on his home event as the leading British driver.
The most high profile casualty during the event, and the only M1 driver not to make it to the finish was the second BP Ford man Hirvonen. A collision with a rock towards the end of the opening stage didn't prevent the Finn from lying second at the first service halt on Friday but a damaged roll cage on the Focus forced him to retire. Also out on leg one was Andreas Aigner, the Red Bull Skoda youngster rolling on SS5 and failing to make it past leg one.
17-year-old Andreas Mikkelsen, driving a third Stobart VK Focus went off the road on leg one although he carried on under SupeRally and posted some encouraging lap-times to climb back up into the top 30 by the end of leg two. However an off on the opening stage of leg three brought his challenge to an end.
Briton Mark Higgins, in his first appearance of the season in a WRC car, had looked set for a top ten finish as he produced a solid display on the opening day and a half, before an engine problem forced him out after SS9 put him out of the event while Gareth MacHale was classified in 16th place after a clutch problem forced him out on leg two and then an oil leak made him park up before the penultimate stage.
Mads Ostberg, the other man in a prioty one WRC car rolled on the very first stage and retired on leg one, but he returned under SupeRally to bring his battered and bruised Adapta Subaru Impreza to the finish, climbing up from 109th after SS2 to finish inside the top 25, posting two top-eight stage times in the process.
In the JWRC, Jaan Molder took the victory after a dramatic event that saw nearly all the drivers hit problems of one sort or another. Kris Meeke, Guy Wilks and Patrick Sandell all dropped out while leading, while Urmo Aava, Per-Gunnar Andersson and Jozef Beres – the other three people fighting for the JWRC title, also had problems – five of the six drivers being forced to use SupeRally during the event at some point.
Luca Betti and Aaron Burkart completed the JWRC podium, with Barry Clark fourth to lift the rookie title.
The WRC finale also acted as the final round of the British Rally Championship, where Stuart Jones took a dramatic last stage win. Going into Trawscoed in third place, he outpaced David Higgins and looked set for second before a problem for leader Ryan Champion saw him lose well over six minutes and drop back to third.