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Gronholm strokes it home
26 November 2000
Marcus Gronholm became the first driver to win the World Rally Championship for Peugeot since Juha Kankkunen achieved the feat 14 years ago after a faultless drive in Rally GB.
After the first of Sunday's three special stages, rally leader Richard Burns conceded that there was nothing else he could do in his quest to win the 2000 WRC Title and that he had no choice but to sit back and bank on Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm either making a mistake or running into mechanical problems.
The English Subaru driver had come out fighting on the 29 kilometre Brechfa stage, setting fastest time overall to put his lead over Gronholm up to nearly 40 seconds but with just two more Special Stages to go before the cars returned to Cardiff for the final time, the chances of the Finn making an uncharacteristic mistake were almost nil.
Gronholm had by his own admission been 'driving like my Grandmother' on Saturday and he adopted the same strategy once again as he dropped 17 seconds to Burns en-route to sixth fastest time but with a 50 second cushion back to third placed Carlos Sainz he knew he could afford not to take any risks.
Sainz however had no such barrier for despite setting fourth quickest time overall, a full 15 seconds ahead of fourth placed Tommi Makinen, the gap between the two was just 16 seconds. Even though he was only ninth on the stage Makinen declared himself happier with his Mitsubishi than he has all weekend and was looking to make a strong run to the finish in his personal bogey event.
Another driver on the move was Francois Delecour who was less than a second behind Burns on the stage and now just five seconds behind Juha Kankkunen in their battle for the final two points scoring positions. The Frenchman could find himself out of a drive next year if rumours linking soon-to-be-unemployed SEAT driver Didier Auriol to the second Peugeot prove to be on the mark and therefore he was in a particularly determined mood as he fought to overhaul the man who is in what is almost certainly his last year of full competition after agreeing to take a reduced Subaru schedule next season.
SS16 through Trawscoed proved to be the downfall of both Petter Solberg and Tapio Laukkanen who fell foul of the slippery conditions after showing well earlier in the morning.
Solberg had been third fastest on SS15 moving into twelfth overall on what had been a remarkable comeback from his Friday setback and was on course for another top five time when he ran wide towards the end of the 26 kilometre test and clipped a tree. Damage was confined to the right front corner but the Impreza refused to fire up leaving him out on the penultimate stage.
Laukkanen was also in fine form on SS15 as he matched Gronholm's time exactly but he found himself walking back to Cardiff when he too ran wide and rolled his Focus WRC ending what has been a disappointing event for the ex-British Champion.
Almost assured of a record breaking third consecutive Rally GB victory but ultimately resigned to Championship defeat, Burns visibly eased back slightly on SS16 and allowed Makinen to take his first stage win for some time and snatch third place overall from Sainz by just one second. Burns was still second quickest so he hadn't eased off too much but he was a full eight seconds behind the Mitsubishi and just six ahead of Gronholm who once again gave best to the charging Delecour.
Third on stage was just enough to ease Delecour ahead of Kankkunen but with only two seconds between them and 28 long muddy kilometres left to run the Frenchman's position was certainly not assured.
Neither was the third Peugeot of Gilles Panizzi who despite performing admirably over the rough terrain, was now only seven seconds clear of Markko Martin's superbly driven Toyota Corolla in seventh and eighth places respectively with the disappointing SEAT's of Dider Auriol and Harri Rovenpara filling out the top ten in their farewell WRC appearance.
And so onto the final run through Margam Park, a route tackled yesterday afternoon but now much more bumpy, slippery and treacherous owing to torrential overnight rain and the pounding from nearly 100 rally cars. Memories of Carlos Sainz' unbelievable engine fire here two years ago lingered on and many of the patriotic fans were hoping for a repeat performance from the Peugeot but it was always unlikely despite the many pitfalls that the stage provided.
As he has done admirably all rally, Gronholm duly kept his nerve and safely avoided all potential hazards to claim his first World Title and Peugeot's first since 1986. His time may only have been good enough for eleventh overall and the delay putting him more than a minute behind Burns but it was all irrelevant as he and co-driver Timo Rautianen celebrated.
Burns too took things easy through the ridiculously slippery tracks of the stately home stage and was only sixth quickest as he swept to his third consecutive Rally GB victory much to the delight of his fans who went home happy despite seeing their hero lose the ultimate battle.
Fastest once again was Makinen who consolidated his third position with the only sub-17 minute time recorded as he watched his four-year title stranglehold disappear. Tommi is now looking forward to the new WRC Lancer in 2001 and his fighting finish to the 2000 season shows that he has no intention of letting his countryman get too friendly with the No. 1 plate.
Never happy with the car or the conditions, Sainz was fourth overall on the final stage but nearly 20 seconds slower than Makinen as he rounded out a strangely sub-par year while Kankkunen showed that there is still plenty of fight left in him as he manhandled his Subaru to third place on the stage and fifth overall as Delecour dropped a mere four seconds to the veteran.
Fifth on the stage was not enough for the Peugeot man who fell to sixth in the final classification after a hard fought final day while Markko Martin's fine effort was ultimately rewarded as he snatched seventh from Panizzi. Second quickest on the stage, the Estonian driver flung his Lukoil sponsored Corolla through the mud with great aplomb as he came within six seconds of an overall stage victory.
Eighth was nothing to be disappointed about for tarmac expert Panizzi who exceeded almost all expectations in conditions that are nearly alien to him and the Frenchman can look forward to an expanded 2001 season with great confidence.
SEAT ended their all-too-brief foray in the World Championship with three out of four Cordoba's making the finish but none threatened the points positions after the first day when Didier Auriol's engine actually ran cleanly and the Frenchman continued to stutter on his way to ninth, one spot ahead of Harri Rovenpara while the oft-delayed Toni Gardemeister came home an undistinguished twelfth.
Eleventh overall was scant reward for Alister McRae who battled everything his reluctant Hyundai could throw at him and yet still made it to the finish. Twelfth quickest on the final stage was about par for the course as Hyundai closed out what has been a character building rookie season in the WRC for the firm.
Armin Schwarz and Luis Climent kept up Skoda's enviable reliability record with a double finish with the German charging hard until the very end with eighth fastest time on the final stage on his way to 13th overall in an event not suited to the brutish Octavia WRC.
Climent was nearly robbed of a finish in his final race for the factory team when he was reduced to front wheel drive only on the last stage, the resulting delay costing him 15th overall to Hamed Al-Wahaibi's well driven Subaru, both drivers being beaten by Henning Solberg's Corolla which came home 14th.
Manfred Stohl claimed Group N honours and the overall Group N Championship with a well-earned 17th place overall while Kenneth Backlund and Olli Harkki completed the top three in the standard showroom class. Austrian driver Stohl was virtually assured of the title yesterday when main rival Gustavo Trelles suffered two punctures and lost more than ten minutes, dropping to 30th overall.
Both Vauxhall Astra Kit Cars made the finish after a fraught last two days with Mark Higgins leading Neil Wearden home in 32nd and 39th places respectively while the Ladies Cup went to TV presenter Penny Mallory who held off a determined late charge from both Natalie Barratt and Pernilla Walfridsson to take an emotional and unexpected triumph in 34th overall in her Ford Focus.
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