4 June 2006
Gronholm stems tide on hot Acropolis.
Ford's Marcus Gronholm finally got the win his recent form has suggested, claiming top spot on the Acropolis Rally to halt runaway championship leader Sebastien Loeb's run of victories at five.
The Finn, running appropriately in BP colours on an event sharing the company's backing, entered the final leg in a strong position having been dogged by Loeb throughout the major part of two days, but still had to focus hard as the roughest rally on the calendar posed one remaining threat. Loeb, meanwhile, openly admitted that he was aiming to reach Athens and score points after a scare on Saturday afternoon threatened to end his rally prematurely.
The Frenchman had been just over 25secs adrift of Gronholm at the head of the leaderboard when he suffered a rear puncture early on SS13, the ensuing kilometres - and the following road section - tearing chunks from the left-rear corner before he managed to reach service. That misadventure dropped the Kronos Citroen driver nearly two minutes off the pace and, despite being freed from pressure from behind by Petter Solberg's bizarre demise, he decided the eight points would be better than none.
While Gronholm chose to keep pushing in order to maintain his concentration, Loeb began the day confessing to taking it easier than he might, aware that trying to regain lost time may result in further mishap. As a result, the Frenchman failed to claim another stage win, four of which went to the returning Solberg, whose Subaru had not been too badly damaged in its coming-together with a spectator's car on the return to the end of day service.
Six minutes-plus adrift overnight, the Norwegian's goal for the final day was to ensure that he finished in the top eight, adding to his paltry points haul for the season. With little to lose given the parlous state of his title challenge, however, Solberg came out all guns blazing, claiming fastest times on each of the four traditional gravel stages, moving quickly up to seventh spot, before giving best to Gronholm on the final run around Athens' superspecial.
Having benefited from Manfred Stohl's misfortune on the first stage of the day, the Subaru driver disposed of the second Kronos Citroen of Xavier Pons on the same test, but found Dani Sordo - in the team's third entry - just too far out of reach, ending the day 38secs shy of sixth spot, having started it more than two minutes behind the Spaniard.
Sordo was another to report problems on the first stage of the final leg, a misfire slowing the Xsara and dropping him away from the podium battle. In his place came Toni Gardemeister, the Finn giving his reliveried Astra Xsara a promising debut as he inched closer to third-placed Mikko Hirvonen. Citroen beat Ford on each of four main stages, aided by Hirvonen puncturing on SS14, but ultimately came up 37secs short as his countryman completed a Ford 1-3.
Stohl was the biggest casualty of the final leg, rolling the OMV Peugeot heavily on the opening stage. Although he and co-driver Ilka Minor were unhurt, the same could not be said for the distinctively-coloured car, which limped through the rest of the day. The incident itself was enough to drop the Austrian out of the points, having started the leg in fifth, and things didn't get any better, with Stohl eventually finding his level in 17th spot, just ahead of the leading PWRC runners.
Filling his place in the final order, Henning Solberg got the better of brother Petter by a couple of places, having driven a steady final leg in the second OMV car, while Xavier Pons completed the scorers in eighth place, having overcome a puncture on the same stage as Solberg Sr. Nearest rival, Jussi Valimaki, was a massive three minutes-plus behind, leaving Pons to concentrate on keeping his car intact in order to increase his tally for the season.
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