2 September 2007
New Zealand - leg 3: Marcus wins after tense end.
Marcus Gronholm came through to win the Rally New Zealand for a record fifth time on Sunday, but the battle with Sebastien Loeb, which went right to the very end, was what made it so memorable.
Indeed the Hamilton-based event was easily the most exciting WRC round of the year to date as the two main championship contenders gave it their all to try and come away with the maximum ten points.
Gronholm took the led from the off on Friday and despite suffering from the 'flu, blitzed his rivals on the first stage - 7.2 seconds up on Loeb, who was 'best of the rest'. The double world champion then set the marker again in SS2 - the slippery 43.88 kilometre Waitomo stage, the longest of the event and once more he was more than 7 seconds up on Seb, who opted for tyres that were too soft. As such Marcus went into service A at Mystery Creek with a 14.8 second advantage.
In the afternoon loop, Loeb came back, but while the Frenchman won both stages, Gronholm was only fractionally slower in both SS3 and SS4 - repeats of Pirongia West and Waitomo - and as a result lost only 1.3 seconds in total. The double world champion eventually finished the day with a 13 second cushion, having conceded another 0.5 seconds to his chief championship rival in the 3.14 kilometre Mystery Creek super special, SS5.
On the second day though the pendulum swung more in Seb's favour and it was the Frenchman who set the pace in SS6, 3.1 seconds up on Gronholm.
Marcus responded in the next test however and thanks to a combination of his third stage win of the event - and the fact Loeb was only fifth fastest through Possum, the Finn took the margin back up into double figures, from 9.9 seconds to 14.9 seconds.
The Franklin test, SS8, at 31.58 kilometres though proved to be the turning point and with Loeb 11.3 seconds quicker than Gronholm, who complained that his car was sliding all over the place after opting for the wrong tyres, it was suddenly very tight.
Going into the second dash through the Mystery Creek super special, ahead of the mid-day halt, Gronholm's lead was down to just 3.6 seconds and although he managed to gain a few more tenths there, with another stage win, the gap was now just 4 seconds.
Following the break for lunch Loeb put in a charge on Saturday afternoon, winning both SS10 and SS11. Furthermore while he was only 0.3 seconds up on Gronholm in Te Akau South, he was 5.4 seconds faster in Te Akau North, something that was enough to push him up into P1.
With only 1.7 seconds separating them though the scene was set for a thrilling final day and leg 3 didn't disappoint.
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