Finland - leg 3: Gronholm sets new WRC record
5 August 2007
Marcus Gronholm came through to win the Rally Finland, his home event, on Sunday, in the process re-writing the record books, as no driver has ever won a WRC event on seven occasions - until now.
Gronholm took the lead from his BP Ford team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen on the second loop on day one and although he was unable to pull out much of a gap on Friday, he still ended the first day on top - 4.4 seconds up, despite having to run first on the road, something he reckoned was a disadvantage.
During the second leg, Gronholm managed to start to ease away - and although Mikko pushed him hard and really made him work for it, in the end Marcus finished the day with a 20-odd second cushion and well placed for the short final leg.
On Sunday Gronholm continued to set the standard winning all three tests and eventually taking the victory, his fourth of the season, by 24.2 seconds. The result increases his lead in the drivers' championship over Sebastien Loeb to 13 points, with seven rounds still to go.
Hirvonen for his part also enjoyed a very good event and while he only won 4 stages, compared to the 17 took by Gronholm, that doesn't tell the whole story. Indeed the two were very evenly matched throughout the three-day event, which took place in dry and sunny conditions - and it was best illustrated in SS6 on Friday, in the 13.72 kilometre-run through Mokkipera 2, when they tied for the quickest time.
Ford's 1-2 result meanwhile was also very good news for the M-Sport-run outfit in terms of the manufacturers' championship, as they outscored Citroen by 12 points, to extend their lead to 40 points.
The fact this was all achieved with the new 2007 spec car, which was making its competitive debut this weekend, was just the icing on the cake for team boss, Malcolm Wilson and the 'Blue Oval' in general.
Loeb for his part never looked likely to challenge the Fords and in the end he finished over a minute off Gronholm – only beating the Finn on the first test on Saturday. Other than that the Frenchman was always pretty much third best and unsurprisingly he was none to happy at the finish.
He will now be hoping that his Citroen C4 WRC will be more competitive on the next event, when the WRC heads to Germany, an event he has dominated since it joined the WRC schedule in 2002.
Chris Atkinson brought his Subaru home in fourth place overall after a very solid drive. Granted in the end he was over 3 minutes off the winner – and 2 minutes off Loeb, but he also finished comfortably ahead of Henning Solberg, who was fifth for the Stobart team.
In total he set 20 top five stage times, the highlight a third best time on Saturday, on the first run through the 33.01 kilometre Ouninpohja test, one of the most famous and fastest in the WRC.
Henning was content with fifth place, especially as he felt a bit rusty to begin with following the long summer break. Unlike the likes of Gronholm and Loeb, he didn't get the chance to test that much in June and July and found it took him a while to get in the swing of things.
Although he had a few minor problems during the event, including a clutch issue in SS7, he found more and more speed as the event progressed and set eight top five times in the final nine stages, including a third best time in SS18.
Further down the order, Xavier Pons was sixth on his debut with the Subaru World Rally Team and as he got more and more confidence in the Impreza so his times improved, culminating with a fourth best stage time on SS23, the final test.
Suzuki's JRC runner, Urmo Aava took seventh position in his privately entered Mitsubishi Lancer WRC. It was the first time he has scored 'senior' WRC points and considering this was only his second outing with the car in the WRC, it was all the more impressive that he brought it home and scored two points.
Mads Ostberg took the final WRC points in eighth in his Adapta-run Subaru Impreza WRC and despite big problems in the final test, when he had only front-wheel drive and lost 30 odd seconds, he managed to hold off Britain's Guy Wilks, who was ninth, just 7.5 seconds behind.
Wilks enjoyed a strong event and would almost certainly have got his first point of the season with his Ramsport-run Focus, if it wasn't for the fact he suffered a heavy landing in SS16 on Saturday and then lost all the hydraulics. As a result of that he slipped back on the final loop and he also injured his back and was in considerable pain for a bit.
Stobart third driver, Matthew Wilson completed the top ten, 1min 30secs off Wilks, while Munchi's Ford team leader, Luis-Perez Companc was eleventh followed by Andreas Mikkelsen, Kaj Kuistila and his team-mate, Federico Villagra. Despite a 'moment' in the final test, Villagra made it to the end and picked up 2 manufacturers' points, which combined with Companc's three, increased the team's tally to six.
Of the others Patrik Flodin took the Group N win in his Impreza, also 15th overall, while BP Ford third driver, Khalid Al Qassimi brought his Focus home one spot behind on his first outing with the team.
In the Junior Rally Championship category, Patrik Sandell took the class win, finishing more than a minute up on fellow Renault Clio R3 runner, Kalle Pinomaki.
Michal Kosciuszko completed the JRC podium in his Suzuki Swift, with Conrad Rautenbach fourth and Tapio Suominen fifth.
Citroen's Martin Prokop had dominated the JRC category on day one, but he went off the road on Saturday in SS14 and retired.
A number of drivers' had problems during this event and of the 'works' aces, four failed to make it to the end, namely Jari-Matti Latvala, Manfred Stohl, Daniel Sordo and Petter Solberg.
Latvala was the first 'works' retirement, when he went off the road on Friday in SS7. He had won the first proper test of the event and led post-SS2, until a mistake in SS3 which dropped him down the order. He then tried to put in a charge, which worked until a mistake in Palsankyla. He was unable to re-start under the SupeRally as his off damaged the safety roll cage on his Stobart Ford Focus.
On Saturday, three more 'big' names joined Latvala on the sidelines. Stohl rolled his Kronos-run Citroen Xsara WRC in SS13, while Sordo stopped in SS15 when his Citroen C4 developed an engine problem.
Petter pulled out after SS15 due to severe handling problems, similar to what he experienced in the first loop on Friday. Indeed they were so bad on day one that 'Hollywood' was reduced to tears as he was just so frustrated with it, noting that it felt impossible to drive. Although Subaru managed to fix the problems then, the issue - or issues - reoccurred on Saturday and this time the team couldn't sort it out. Subaru opted not to re-start him on Sunday and instead the car was sent back to their base in the UK to try and figure out what was wrong with it.
Other retirees included Kristian Sohlberg, who rolled in the first proper test, as well as Anton Alen and Skoda privateer, Jan Kopecky – both going out on the final day, the latter after an off in SS21.
The FIA World Rally Championship now continues in two weeks time, when competitors head to Germany for the Rallye Deutschland - the tenth round in the series, which runs from August 17-19.
Loeb has won the event in Germany every single year since 2002 and will be determined to bounce back after the Gronholm-Ford master class this weekend in Finland.