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.
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.''