Tommi M?kinen celebrated his 100th FIA World Championship rally start in style by winning the Rallye de Portugal, after completing four days on one of the toughest events in recent memory.

The Finn was made to fight hard for his 22nd victory at this level though, as Carlos Sainz snatched the lead on today's penultimate stage and only a supreme effort from M?kinen denied the Spaniard victory.

Reigning FIA World Rally champion Marcus Gr?nholm, meanwhile, scored his first points of this season in third.

There was less rain today than the previous two legs, but conditions were still extremely difficult for the remaining crews and event organisers scrapped one of the planned three stages because of its treacherous road surface.

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Mitsubishi driver M?kinen made the brave decision to opt for a wider cut tyre in the belief that today's stages would be more muddy, but when the first test was cancelled because of poor road conditions, his task became harder.

Sure enough, he was unable to stop Carlos Sainz moving 0.3 seconds ahead in the penultimate stage, so M?kinen had to throw caution to the wind in the final test. He admitted taking several risks but his counter-attack succeeded: he moved back into the lead and won the rally by nearly nine seconds.

''This victory is a bit special," said a jubilant Makinen. "I cut so many corners on that last stage, I took every risk to try to get the victory back. Perhaps our tyre cut was a bit too open for the stages, which made it more difficult because Carlos was very close and pushing extremely hard. People are already talking about the championship but we've still got 11 rallies left and today showed that it's a close season. It won't be easy, but I'm glad we've made this sort of start.''

''I almost had to fight back the tears. For Tommi to win on his 100th world championship start is incredible, and to do it in this fashion is even better," admitted Mitsubishi Ralliart Chairman Andrew Cowan.

"When he has to produce the goods, Tommi can do it - he's showed that before and he showed it again today. We were obviously nervous going into the last stage but we knew we'd done all we could and we had faith that Tommi would do a good job. It's been a great advertisement for rallying.''

In the Ford camp, Carlos Sainz's fastest time on the first of today's two stages was enough to catapult Carlos Sainz ahead of Tommi M?kinen and into the lead - by just 0.3 seconds.

But the Spaniard slid wide on a muddy, rutted corner near the start of the last stage and towards its finish, he encountered rocks that had been pulled into the road by the corner-cutting M?kinen.

As a result, he dropped 8.9 seconds to the Finn and claimed second - his third podium finish in three events. ''I took many risks in the first of the two stages and it worked," said Sainz. "But in the second, I got a bit wide at one corner near the start and then I had to back off because Tommi was leaving me some presents in the road!

"I couldn't drive over the rocks, so I lost time. Of course I wanted to win but this has been the hardest rally I've done in my whole career. The combination of mist, fog and the muddy roads has been incredibly difficult for the drivers. I'm glad to take some points from that.''

Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson was full of praise for the performance of both Sainz and M?kinen. ''Full credit to both of them. They were very evenly matched and nobody else came close to them in atrocious weather.

''It's a shame we finished second and not first but it's still good points on the board and it's great for the sport that after four days' competition it all came down to the final few kilometres. Pirelli did a great job for us with their tyres and it's a tribute to the strength of the Focus that it stood up to such conditions,'' he said.

Ford Martini team-mates Fran?ois Delecour and Daniel Grataloup endured a trouble free final day to finish fifth in their Focus RS. It was their third points-scoring finish of the season and they now lie fourth in the championship.

''Today was straight-forward for us,'' said Delecour. ''We had big time gaps both in front and behind us so there was no need to push at all. I drove very carefully. The conditions made this one of the most difficult rallies of my life and I'm just happy to finish in the points again. Two cars in the top five is a good result for Ford.''

Lead Subaru driver Richard Burns started the day with the fourth fastest time through SS21, but 0.3 seconds slower than Marcus Gronholm, which left him 54 seconds adrift of third place with just one stage remaining.

With no realistic chance of making up the time needed to catch Gronholm, Burns took few risks on the final stage and duly brought his Subaru across the line in fourth place to collect his first points of the season.

''It's disappointing to work so hard just for fourth place, but with regard to the Championship I've been in far worse situations and come out well. So I'm certainly not too concerned,'' stated the Englishman afterwards.

Peugeot 206 WRC driver Marcus Gr?nholm also took his first points of the 2001 World Rally Championship with his third place finish, having retired from both the previous rounds with mechanical problems.

The reigning World Champion had started today in a comfortable position, nearly a minute clear of Burns and the Finn adopted a cautious strategy accordingly over today's two tests near Ponte de Lima, for although the weather had improved marginally, the roads were still treacherously slippery.

''There was little to gain from charging today because I was too far behind Carlos (Sainz) and Tommi (M?kinen) to really pressurise them," explained Gronholm. "After yesterday afternoon's good times I knew that Richard would have to do something pretty special to catch me if I didn't make any mistakes, so I so just concentrated on that.

"Of course I'm pleased to get my campaign off to start with some points after our problems earlier this year. Even just finishing this event is an achievement, because it's been the most difficult conditions that I've ever seen. It's Catalunya next and I'm still not that experienced on asphalt, but I hope to come away with a decent score there as well.''

The second 206 of Didier Auriol started the day in eighth, and the 1994 World champion chose the same strategy as Gr?nholm to finish the event - but was one place away from a manufacturers' point.

''It's been an incredibly difficult rally for me after we damaged the car on the first day," admitted Auriol. "It was hard to make up time when the roads were so bad but I'm pleased to have had some more kilometres in the car in slippery conditions. I hope Catalunya will be better still, of course.''

Another regular Peugeot works driver, Gilles Panizzi, finished just outside the top ten after using the event to build up his experience in a privately run 206 WRC.

Both Hyundai drivers, Alister McRae and Kenneth Eriksson scored points on their debut event in the Hyundai Accent WRC?, after finishing in sixth and seventh positions overall respectively.

On an event with an exceptional attrition rate, due to the extremely difficult weather conditions, the Hyundai Castrol World Rally Team was the only team to bring all their cars to the finish - an amazing result for a brand new car, and a repeat of the team's first generation World Rally Car debut in Sweden last year.

Both crews drove a confident and determined rally that challenged the Accent WRC? in all areas. The car ran effectively trouble free for the duration of the event, demonstrating its reliability, and both drivers set top ten stage times, bar three, for the duration.

Included in those were a fourth fastest for Alister on the penultimate stage on leg two, as well as two fifth fastest times on the events' final two tests, indicating the potential pace of the new car.

Finishing sixth overall, Alister McRae scored two points for the Korean manufacturer as well as his first driver point with Hyundai. "I'm obviously very pleased. This is the roughest rally I have ever done, and to get not just one, but two cars to the finish, is excellent. This is a tremendous reward for all the hard work that has been put into the new car and everyone in the team deserves a huge pat on the back," said the Scot.

Kenneth Eriksson also displayed an exemplary performance despite the meteorological challenges posed. Excess amounts of rain left the stages very muddy and slippery which was a perfect recipe for ruts to develop. Along with the fog, all competing crews have commented on how difficult the rally has been - in some way almost 'Safari-spec'.

"You can't imagine how hard it has been on these stages and the punishment the cars have been through," commented the Swede. "We took it steady on the last day to make sure we held onto our position. I would have expected to have some problems during this rally as with any new car but it is extremely strong and we've had no problems. It is a fantastic car to drive," he concluded.

This being the first event for the Accent WRC?, Nick Clipson, Chief Engineer, was obviously anxious that it performed to its potential. "It's been a difficult rally in terms of constantly changing conditions, which have made it hard to establish the true pace of the new car. But on what both drivers have described as the roughest event they have ever done, the cars have performed incredibly well.

"I'm very pleased with the new suspension that has enabled both drivers to perform in the way they have. The durability of the WRC? has also exceeded our expectations and bodes well for the rest of the season," commented Clipson.

David Whitehead, Team Principal was also encouraged by the results. "To achieve the same number of manufacturer points as the whole of last year in the first three events of this season is a fantastic achievement, and is a testament to the improving reliability & speed of the Accent WRC?.

"Obviously we're very pleased with the results, especially considering the increasingly difficult conditions and both drivers drove an excellent rally," Whitehead added.

Other teams:

Former British champion Tapio Laukkanen was the top privateer, finishing ninth in a Toyota Corolla. But the Finn is not registered for the FIA Teams Cup for privateers, so countryman Pasi Hagstrom (10th overall) claimed maximum points in the series.

Local driver Rui Madeira finished 11th in a Ford Focus, ahead of Peugeot driver Gilles Panizzi, who suffered from poor handling yesterday afternoon, but he was pleased to gain further experience of the 206 WRC on loose surfaces.

Hamed Al-Wahaibi finished 13th and claimed second in the FIA Teams Cup section - rich reward for the Oman driver's efforts to get a replacement car to the start after he'd damaged his original machine during the pre-event shakedown test.

In the Group N section for more standard machinery, reigning category world champion Manfred Stohl moved back ahead of Marcos Ligato this morning but then received a time penalty for early arrival at the final service.

Argentina driver Ligato thus claimed the class win, and joined Stohl at the top of the Group N World Championship standings. After scrutineering though, both cars were referred to the stewards, who therefore suspended the classification, subject to further scrutineering of the cars by the FIA.