Tommi Makinen took a bittersweet second win of the season, being now faced with the certain loss of the world championship crown he has held for the last four years.
Tactics had dominated the first two legs of the Telstra Rally Australia, with the teams positioning themselves for today by slowing appropriately. However, the four final stages provided a truly exciting battle with all drivers going flat out - the time for tactics having passed.
Makinen's win, and title rivals Gronholm and Burns second and third positions, also means that the drivers' and manufacturers' crowns will be decided at the seasons final round, the Rally of Great Britain later this month.
Late last night Makinen was handed a 10s penalty for jumping the start of the order-defining SS16, Murray Pines. Under normal circumstances this would have automatically brought about a rush of appeals but, not surprisingly, Mitsubishi accepted the punishment without question as it dropped Makinen from the lead and into third on the road for today's stages.
Or so he thought. A late puncture change by Richard Burns before the first stage of the day meant that Makinen was pushed back up into second on the road, behind Gronholm.
Makinen remained unfazed and was the fastest driver on the first two stages, he later explained that this had been a demonstration of no holds barred driving from the reigning world champion, “There's not so much difference being second on the road and I couldn't drive any faster. Near the end of SS19 I took a crest flat out and nearly landed in the forest! I'm using the sand banks here to bounce the car off, just I do with the snow banks in Sweden.”
Despite pressure from Burns and Gronholm in what was effectively a three horse race, Makinen held and indeed extended his lead in the remaining special stages. The victory helping to sweeten the blow of knowing that his four-year reign as world champion is over. ''It's been an incredible four years,” he said before adding, “I really can't remember what it's like not to be champion.”
Peugeot driver and world championship leader, Marcus Gronholm, was hampered by running first on the road, which inevitably lost the Finn time today. Nevertheless he will head into the final round of the championship as clear favourite for victory, with a seven-point advantage over Richard Burns.
Team mate Francois Delecour's hopes of reeling in Richard Burns were always slim, but disappeared completely after he gained a further 20s penalty when replacing a broken spark plug caused him to be late out of the morning's first service.