BP Ford's Marcus Gronholm romped home to take the victory on the Rally New Zealand on Sunday, the penultimate round in the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship.
Gronholm took the lead from the off on Friday and was 5.9 seconds up on his team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen in the first test - the 20.38 kilometre Pirongia West stage, despite hitting a marker pole and knocking his steering out of alignment. He was then again fastest through the long 43.88 kilometre Te Koraha stage [SS2] and as such he increased his early lead to 17.7 seconds, despite the fact the conditions were extremely wet and muddy due to overnight rain. Indeed the wet conditions were something of a godsend for the Finn as he was running first on the road and the rain helped to bind together the gravel.
In the afternoon on day one the conditions dried out, but it made no difference to Marcus and he was 4.8 seconds up on Hirvonen in SS3, the second run through Pirongia, before adding another 5.7 seconds to his lead in Te Koraha 2 despite a 'little incident'. Gronholm then won the 3.14 kilometre Mystery Creek super special to take a 31.2 second advantage into the second leg.
On Saturday morning all three tests were dogged by heavy rainstorms and as a result the stages became increasingly muddy as more and more cars passed through the tests. Visibility was also a problem and in parts of the 18.18 kilometre Port Waikato stage [SS6] drivers' could see less than 100 metres. Fog also played apart in the following test, the 13.88 kilometre-run through Klondyke. Despite all this though, Gronholm began the day in similar form to Friday, topping the times in stage six, narrowly in front of Kronos Citroen's Xavier Pons. In the next test though he eased of slightly complaining that he had the wrong tyres - he was still second fastest though, and he then completed the morning by posting the third best time in SS8.
Gronholm was back on it in the second loop and while it was still cloudy, the rain wasn't quite so bad. The Finn was fastest through Te Akau South, 8.2 seconds up on Hirvonen. In the final 'proper' test of the day, the rain returned and the ordering was reversed, although Gronholm was second best to Mikko by only 0.3 seconds. Marcus then finished the day by taking another stage win in the Mystery Creek super special, to take his tally for the day to three stage wins from six.
The final day saw no upsets at the top and with a 50 second cushion Gronholm could have taken it easy. He didn't though and he won all three stages in the first loop to further increase his advantage to 55 seconds. He more or less maintained the same approach in the afternoon, winning two more tests and finished the event 56 seconds up on Hirvonen.
It was his sixth win of the season and his fourth on the Rally NZ and one that was achieved in dominant style, the Finn winning 13 of the events 17 stages.
Mikko meanwhile, while eager to try and challenge his team-mate was mindful of Ford's bid to win the manufacturers' and the importance of scoring good points. Hence he opted to take it relatively easy and not try and push too much. He still set a number of good stage times however, winning SS10 and he was second fastest on nine others. The result, a one-two for Ford, guarantees the M-Sport-run outfit the constructors' crown, as they now have a 25 point lead over Kronos Citroen with only one round to go and a maximum 18 points available.
OMV Peugeot's Manfred Stohl took the final place on the podium, his second third place finish in two events - and his third of the season. The Austrian was engaged in a battle with Daniel Sordo for the place for much of the event and while he slipped behind towards the end of Friday after a spin in SS4 and lost further ground on Saturday morning when he went for the wrong tyres, he came back in the second loop and ended Saturday's action 16.9 seconds in front. Stohl maintained his position on Sunday and eventually took the spot by 16.8 seconds.