Marcus Gronholm took his - and Peugeot's - second WRC victory of the year after a tense struggle to resist Colin McRae in New Zealand, and further closes the gap on series leader Richard Burns.

Much had been made of the fact that Burns would still be leading the championship after round eight, regardless of where - or whether - he finished the event. Few actually considered the possibility that the Englishman's Subaru would fail again, but that is exactly what happened, and the championship now heads to Finland with the top four all within touching distance of the lead.

Burns had, along with fellow Brit McRae, been Gronholm's only real opposition heading into the third and final leg of the rally, as Carlos Sainz and Juha Kankkunen, lying fourth and fifth overnight, both had more than a minute to make up. With only one stage of any real length among the seven to be tackled, reliability was going to be the Finn's only real worry, provided he could contain the drivers in his wake.

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This he largely managed to do, although running first on the road continued to cause problems for the leader as he acted as roadsweeper for those behind him. The gap back to McRae yo-yo'd with every stage as, first, the Finn put some time in the bank and, then, preceded to lose small amounts as McRae racked up back-to-back wins in the middle of the day. The rally almost had a new leader on SS19, as Gronholm got the 206 WRC up onto two wheels, but he recovered sufficiently to take second fastest time over the 8.5km run.

''It was a big, big moment,'' he confessed, ''I really thought the car was going over.''

McRae also had problems on the same stage, as his gearbox first showed signs of refusing to co-operate with the driver's instructions, and the Scot lost valuable time just as his pursuit looked to be gathering momentum. Without the aid of his lower cogs, which were proving ever harder to select - and without the chance of replacing the unit at service, as there weren't any - McRae soldiered on at a marginally reduced pace, convinced that, without the problem, he could have added to last month's Acropolis success.

The selection problem did not seem to hamper him too much on stages 20 through 23, but the distance covered in each was not conducive to wiping great chunks out Gronholm's lead, and Ford only inched closer to Peugeot.

By this stage, the rally had become a two-horse race, as Burns was forced out in slightly farcical fashion. Both the Briton and team-mate Kankkunen reported steering problems on SS20, and the two Subarus emerged from the next stage with smoke pouring from under the bonnet. Neither would then restart on demand, and an, as yet undetected, problem sent both drivers out of the event OTL.

The Englishman's retirement set a worrying trend that looked set to claim McRae at the end of next stage, as Subaru joined Hyundai in retirement. Alister McRae has only just recorded the Castrol-backed team's first ever stage win on the opening test of the day, when his transmission went AWOL on the road section to SS19 and, with Burns winning that section and then retiring shortly afterwards, the day didn't bode well for stage winners.

''I was surprised to fastest on the stage, to be honest,'' Alister admitted, ''and, obviously, it was disappointing that I had to stop, but this has generally been a good event.''

Kankkunen's departure from fifth removed the pressure on Sainz and, with Burns also out, the Spaniard was able to move into third and claim another podium spot in a consistent season. The double Subaru retirement also allowed Petter Solberg to climb the order, finally cementing a Ford 2-3-4 after winning the last stage of the rally. Once again, the Blue Oval was the only manufacturer to get all its entries to the line which, for a car once regarded as the weakest in the field in terms of reliability, again proved a point.

The leaderboard took quite a beating in the lower order, with reigning champion Tommi Makinen also failing to finish, after a heavy spin and impact damaged the front of his Mitsubishi beyond repair. The Finn dragged the battered machine out of SS18, but his crew deemed it unsafe to continue with the front subframe so badly twisted, and it was withdrawn.

Kenneth Eriksson was already ahead of Makinen at the time of the champion's retirement, and drove superbly to bring Hyundai its first top six, and second points, finish of the season. The veteran Swede took third on the opening stage behind team-mate McRae, and backed this up with similar performances on stages 21 and 24 to confirm fifth on the road at the end. With Solberg's Focus not being registered for points, Hyundai added another to its tally to cap a good event for all concerned.

Possum Bourne took the final point scoring place after a typically gutsy drive in his privateer Impreza, and was a regular fixture in the stage top ten by the mid-point of the leg. He was joined there on occasion by the likes of Geoff Argyle, Bruce Herbert and, latterly, Andrew Hawkeswood, but none had enough time in hand to really challenge the leaders.

Also appearing in the top ten by the end of the rally were Group N front-runners Manfred Stohl, Cody Crocker and Gustavo Trelles. The trio completed the class podium after 24 stages, despite Crocker's Subaru appearing to suffer similar problems to the works cars when it ended SS20 with smoke issuing from the engine bay. In the event, the Australian was able to soldier on, and was rewarded with second in class, after day where the gap to first was seldom greater than ten seconds.

Hamed Al Wahaibi also soldiered on to become the sole finisher in the Teams' Cup category, finishing 18th overall to take the Arab World Rally Team's maiden points.

Gronholm's success, timed at a scant 14.5secs after 373.37km of stage miles, lifts him to within four points of Burns' overall championship lead. With McRae and Sainz also within eleven points of top spot, next month's Rally Finland looks set to be an exceedingly tense affair. Burns knows that he will not necessarily emerge from Scandinavia still holding the advantage, while the Ford drivers will be hoping for more of the same reliability that has carried them through the diverse elements of Greece and New Zealand.

Gronholm, however, will be going home and, provided he can persuade his 206 to cope with Finland as it did New Zealand, he could be on top of the world come the end of August.

''Finland's the one I want to win most of all,'' he said, ''I feel that I have been practising for it for ten years, and now I want to win it!''.

The rest have been warned.....

Stage winners - Rally New Zealand - Leg Three:

SS18 Te Akau South Alister McRae 18mins 46.3secs SS19 Ridge 1 Richard Burns 4mins 46.3secs SS20 Campbell 1 Colin McRae 3mins 55.9secs SS21 Ridge 2 Colin McRae 4mins 45.4secs SS22 Campbell 2 Colin McRae 3mins 51.8secs SS23 Fyfe 1 Colin McRae 4mins 21.8secs SS24 Fyfe 2 Petter Solberg 4min 17.7secs

Unofficial result - Rally New Zealand.

1. Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206 WRC 3hr 45mins 13.4secs +00mins 00.0secs
2. Colin McRae Ford Focus WRC 3hr 45mins 27.9secs +00mins 14.5secs
3. Carlos Sainz Ford Focus WRC 3hr 46mins 31.8secs +01mins 18.4secs
4. Petter Solberg Ford Focus WRC 3hr 48mins 14.1secs +03mins 00.7secs
5 Kenneth Eriksson Hyundai Accent WRC 3hr 48mins 26.1secs +03mins 12.7secs
6. Possum Bourne Subaru Impreza WRC98 3hr 52mins 08.0secs +06mins 54.6secs
7. Manfred Stohl Mitsubishi Carisma 3hr 57mins 05.4secs +11mins 52.0secs
8. Cody Crocker Subaru Impreza 3hr 57mins 14.6secs +12mins 01.2secs
9. Geoff Argyle Mitsubishi Lancer 3hr 58mins 00.8secs +12mins 47.4secs
10. Gustavo Trelles Subaru Impreza 3hr 58mins 51.7secs +13mins 38.3secs

15. Bruce Herbert Mitsubishi Lancer 4hr 01mins 19.3secs +16mins 05.9secs


Rtd Juha Kankkunen Subaru Impreza WRC steering failure - stage twenty-one
Rtd Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 power steering - stage twenty
Rtd Tommi Makinen Mitsubishi Lancer Evo6 accident damage - stage eighteen
Rtd Alister McRae Hyundai Accent WRC transmission - stage eighteen
Rtd Toshiro Arai Subaru Impreza withdrawn - stage sixteen
Rtd Didier Auriol SEAT Cordoba WRC accident - stage sixteen
Rtd Freddy Loix Mitsubishi Carisma GT withdrawn - stage thirteen
Rtd Francois Delecour Peugeot 206 WRC gearbox - stage ten
Rtd Toni Gardemeister SEAT Cordoba WRC accident - stage one

Group N

7. Manfred Stohl Mitsubishi Carisma 3hr 57mins 05.4secs +11mins 52.0secs
8. Cody Crocker Subaru Impreza 3hr 57mins 14.6secs +12mins 01.2secs
10. Gustavo Trelles Subaru Impreza 3hr 58mins 51.7secs +13mins 38.3secs
18. Hamed Al Wahaibi Subaru Impreza 4hr 03mins 44.9secs +18mins 31.5secs

[Times courtesy Mitsubishi Motors]