Tommi Mäkinen 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 Mäkinen denied the Spaniard victory.
Reigning FIA World Rally champion Marcus Grönholm, 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.
driver Mäkinen 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 Mäkinen 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 Mäkinen and into the lead - by just 0.3 seconds.