The first day of the Neste Rally Finland saw a titanic battle between Series leader Richard Burns and title hopeful Marcus Gronholm with the Peugeot driver just edging ahead.
Such was the domination of Richard Burns and Marcus Gronholm on the first day of the Neste Rally Finland that when four time Champion Tommy Makinen won the final stage on his home rally, people were shocked! That is because they had come to expect either the Subaru of Peugeot driver to finish top, as they had done in every other stage of the day.
Local boy Gronholm started the first of the days ten stages as favourite, especially with Burns running ahead of him on the road. However the route was still slightly damp from overnight rain and much of the advantage that Gronholm would have gained had the route been dry, was lost.
The short seven kilometre Kuohu test opened the day and Gronholm was immediately on the pace, performing some very lurid early morning slides on his way to fastest time overall. Burns was just nine tenths of a second down and also throwing caution to the wind while the privateer Toyota of Harri Rovenpara was a highly impressive third and only one tenth of a second slower than Burns.
Others chose a slightly more cautious tactic on the treacherous roads including Ford drivers Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae, Juha Kankkunen in the second Subaru and both SEAT drivers who were still unsure of the handling characteristics of the new Evo3 Cordoba.
Sainz was forced to be even more cautious on the 20 kilometre second stage at Parkkola when a malfunctioning ECU reduced the Focus to a crawl for much of the stage. The Spaniard was outside the top 100 at the end of the stage but vowed to continue and rose dramatically to 24th place by the end of the day, albeit six minutes behind Gronholm.
Gronholm repeated his stage one victory on the second, third , fourth and fifth tests of the day and looked simply irresistible behind the wheel of the sleek Peugeot 206 WRC save for one minor incident on SS5 when he slid into a ditch after hitting a slippery section of road.
If Gronholm was pushing in the nimble Peugeot then Burns was mesmeric in the far broader Impreza WRC, a car which nearly failed the mandatory FIA width test prior to the start of SS1. The English driver lost a total of eight seconds during the course of the opening five stages and was not once more than four seconds slower on a stage than Gronholm. Only Francois Delacour was able to break the 1-2 mould during the first five stages when he equalled Burns' time on SS4 and as the mammoth field of more than 120 cars began the final five stages of the day, third placed Rovenpara was more than 15 seconds behind the fleeing Peugeot.
With a classic battle developing up-front, the scrap for third place was almost overlooked as Rovenpara fought to hold of a closely packed bunch including Petter Solberg
and Colin McRae in the two remaining competitive Fords. Solberg was making a very good impression in the first rally where “I am allowed to go flat out,” and was keeping the pressure on Rovenpara in third.