Subaru driver Petter Solberg
has scored his first victory at FIA World Rally Championship level on the closing round of this year's series, the Rally of Great Britain.
The Norwegian and his Welsh co-driver Philip Mills fought past their close rivals Markko Martin and Michael Park on this morning's first stage, and they fended off the Ford pairing thereafter to notch up their breakthrough victory. Ford's double world champion Carlos Sainz scored his fifth podium finish of the year in third overall.
Yet again, the Welsh weather was kind to crews today, as clear blue skies remained over the south of the country until the finish in Cardiff this afternoon. But the slippery conditions underfoot still caught out a few of the competitors, including outgoing world champion Richard Burns, who slid off on the penultimate stage, and Frenchman Sebastien Loeb, who was forced to retire with suspension damage on his Citroen.
Both Solberg and Tommi Makinen enjoyed reliability from their Subaru Impreza WRC2002s today. Makinen did complain, however, about a switch to Pirelli's wider KM tyre for the day's opening (long) stage, Resolfen. Solberg also had to downtune his engine in the closing kilometres of the final stage after concerns about its health.
Solberg got his wish this morning though, when some of the day's first and longest stage, Resolfen, was shrouded in fog. The Norwegian attacked overnight leader Martin with a vengeance and it paid off, as he barged past the Estonian to claim a useful lead after just one stage. He admitted that he took things too easily on the next stage, where Martin recouped some of his lost time, but Solberg regrouped to score fastest time in the day's penultimate stage and at least allow himself a relatively comfortable run through the last test on his way to his and his Welsh co-driver Philip Mills' maiden WRC rally win. The 10 points also promoted Solberg to second in the drivers' championship.
His team-mate Makinen claimed fourth at the finish, although he had benefited from Burns' late retirement. Makinen himself had to fight off Colin McRae today and despite concerns about his tyre choice in Resolfen, the four-times world champion did enough to keep the Scot at bay and score three manufacturers' points for Subaru.
''I just can't believe it!'' said Solberg. ''I have to thank everyone in the team - all the crew, mechanics and engineers - and also Phil, of course, who's been terrific. I had a late scare when I had to preserve the engine in the final few kilometres but in the end, we still set the fastest time! To get second in the championship after such a long year and so many hard events is terrific as well - I really just want to enjoy the moment.''
Co-driver Phil Mills added: ''It's an incredible feeling. Any win is special but the first one is always extra sweet and to do it on home soil, only an hour and a half from my house, is pretty amazing. Petter's driven superbly on so much of this year's championship but he's had bad luck - I'm just glad it's all come good and we've broken the duck. And to finish second in the drivers' championship is fantastic.''
Subaru World Rally Team Principal David Lapworth concluded: ''We knew we had quite a good package for this event and once Marcus was out yesterday and it was between Petter and Markko, we were optimistic that he could come through for us. We're obviously pleased, but now we have to start really hard work to get Petter and Tommi as good a chance as possible to score more wins in 2003.''