Marcus Gronholm claimed his third FIA World Rally Championship win of the year today, and also completed a hat trick of victories at a bright and sunny final day on Rally Finland.
The Finn's success has strengthened his championship lead to 17 points. Gronholm enjoyed a comfortable final day, and was handed a further bonus when championship rival Colin McRae was forced to retire from third place, after his Ford Focus caught fire at the end of stage 20.
Fellow Briton Richard Burns was runner-up, and enjoyed a similarly straightforward run to the finish. The main battle of the day took place between Subaru's Petter Solberg
and Ford's Carlos Sainz, who fought tooth and nail for what became third place. Exuberance overcame experience on this occasion, as Solberg took the place by a scant 4.2s after three days, and more than 400 kilometres of competitive driving.
Markko Martin took fifth place, and Tommi Makinen finally got himself into the points on the day that counts. He finished sixth. Other notable finishers include Peugeot privateer Sebastian Lindholm, in an excellent seventh, and former world champion Timo Salonen in 14th. The 50-year-old made an enjoyable one-off return to the sport in another privately entered 206 WRC.
The remaining Peugeot 206 WRCs of Richard Burns and Marcus Gronholm have been reliable today. Both drivers were careful to not to push the cars harder than necessary, given the comfortable margin between them and third place.
Burns won the day's opening stage by 0.2s from Markko Martin, Gronholm was third, just 0.5s behind the Briton. Thereafter the pair paced themselves, and the overall gap changed little by the end of the rally. Two of the three stages used on Sunday had not been used since 1997, and another was completely new, so in common with others, Burns and Gronholm were cautious on the new terrain. The pair allowed themselves one last sprint through the forests on the final stage, setting joint-fastest time.
Marcus Gronholm said: ''It looks good when you see the championship points, and I'm really looking forward to the next two [asphalt] rallies.''
The third Peugeot driven by Harri Rovanpera retired yesterday in SS13.
At Ford meanwhile the Focus RS WRC02 of Colin McRae caught fire at the end of SS20. The crew realised the car was alight 500 metres before the end of the stage. They completed the test, but the blaze caught hold quickly. McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist escaped unhurt.
Carlos Sainz and Markko Martin enjoyed a reliable run. Sainz had one technical problem, when he picked up a puncture on SS18, and the run-flat mousse system in his Pirelli tyre deformed during the stage. Markko Martin regrets his decision to use a different set-up on day one of the rally, but says he has learnt his lesson for next time.