Peugeot driver Marcus Grönholm has won the 13th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Telstra Rally Australia. The reigning world champion and navigator Timo Rautiainen controlled their pace through today's final four stages to claim victory on the Perth-based event for the second year in succession.
But the results further down the points order have set up a thrilling climax to the 2001 series. Richard Burns finished second and with title rivals Colin McRae and Tommi Mäkinen only finishing fifth and sixth respectively, the three will go into the Rally GB later this month covered by just two points. Grönholm's win also lifted Peugeot to the top of the manufacturer's championship but Ford and Mitsubishi will both travel to Cardiff with chances of preventing the French team from winning the title two years in a row.
At Peugeot the 206 WRCs of Marcus Grönholm and Didier Auriol have both run without trouble today. Harri Rovanperä's car suffered a broken alternator belt 10km from the end of the penultimate stage, though, and the Finn reckoned he lost as much as 10 seconds in the closing kilometres as the engine kept cutting out. Gilles Panizzi's only scare was a spluttering engine as he tried to exit the watersplash on the closing televised stage.
Grönholm concentrated on not making a mistake during today's four stages in the SOTICO forest complex and the reigning world champion duly notched up his second Rally Australia win in succession. Didier Auriol lost time on the day's first stage when he hit a rock and knocked a rear wheel out of line but the Frenchman was comfortable in third place and he claimed the final podium position. Harri Rovanperä came under pressure from Colin McRae in the later stages and a broken alternator belt in the penultimate stage didn't help. But the Swedish Rally winner held his ground to finish fourth and score three manufacturers' points for Peugeot. Gilles Panizzi, meanwhile, tried to gain more experience of left-foot braking on gravel. He dropped behind Carlos Sainz into ninth by the finish.
Marcus Gronholm said: ''I'm delighted! From yesterday morning I really knew we could win because after the team changed the steering the car felt so, so good and I knew I could push. We really won the rally yesterday because today's been about watching Richard's speed and making sure he doesn't get too close. It's obviously a good result for the team because it means we go to Britain at the top of the manufacturers series. I'll still be pushing hard there to make sure we win it again, so it'll be interesting to compare my speed to Colin, Tommi and Richard as they fight for the drivers' title.''
Harri Rovanperä added: ''I've been satisfied with my driving here, mainly because I thought the stages would be easy to remember on this rally and that hasn't been the case. Even the slightest lift of the throttle at a crest makes a difference when everyone's on such an attack. But we still scored good points for Peugeot, which was the important thing for us here.''
Gilles Panizzi said: ''I'm quite happy. I lost the good feeling yesterday but today I've been trying to do more left-foot braking and the confidence has come back. Some of my times have been quite good so while I know I need more experience and knowledge of the stages here, I'm quite satisfied.''
Peugeot Sport Team Director Corrado Provera concluded: ''All of our drivers have performed superbly. Didier has done everything we could have asked of him, Gilles has learnt a lot and our two Finnish stars Marcus and Harri have been exemplary. I'm very proud of what we've achieved and I'm looking forward to Britain.''
The Subaru Impreza WRC2001s of Richard Burns and Petter Solberg
have been reliable today. Solberg's only slight problem was a puncture five kilometres before the end of the day's first stage.