Rally Australia had a sting in the tail for the Subaru team, and despite being 'best of the rest' after Peugeot and taking third with Petter Solberg, Tommi Makinen's exclusion was a drama the team would preferred not to have had.

Forty-six of the original 69 starters left Perth this morning in bright and sunny conditions to begin the last day of Rally Australia, the penultimate round of the 2002 World Rally Championship.

The day comprised just four stages based around a central service point at the town of Bannister, 112km south east of Perth. The action took place on the forest roads around the Sotico pine plantation, and in their dry condition, the high-speed stages featured plenty of loose gravel to catch out the unwary.

The first of two stages before service (SS21 - Bannister Central) was a short, high-speed dash over a loose gravel surface and featured the famous 'Bunnings' jumps.

With a 24-second gap between himself and second place, Harri Rovanpera was immediately on the attack in his Peugeot. The Finn was quickest, with Carlos Sainz second and Marcus Gronholm third. Subaru drivers Makinen and Solberg were fourth and fifth fastest respectively, which kept Makinen secure in fifth overall, but reduced the gap between Solberg and the chasing Rovanpera to 19.3 seconds.

The longer stage of the opening group (SS22 - Bannister South) was another high-speed test through the pine plantations of the Southern Timber Company. Rovanpera was quickest, with Gronholm second, followed by the Subarus of Makinen third and Solberg fourth.

Rovanpera's winning time was enough to move him 5.7 secs ahead of Petter on the overall table into second place. Makinen too was on the move, the Finn promoted to fourth when Carlos Sainz rolled and dropped a minute. In the accident Sainz's Focus sustained bodywork, windscreen and turbo damage, but he was able to continue and reached the Sotico service area for a 20-minute refresh ahead of the penultimate stage.

The high-speed stages of leg three seemed to suit the Peugeot drivers especially and on the second longest test of the leg (SS23 - Bannister West) Rovanpera went fastest, followed by Gronholm then Solberg and Makinen.

Ford's 21-year-old Belgian Francois Duval crashed five kms from the start and retired. Duval, who had been sixth overall and locked in a fierce battle with team-mate Markko Martin, was evacuated by helicopter to hospital as a precaution, although his injuries were limited to severe bruising.

In the final stage (SS24 - Bannister North) Gronholm kept his cool to win and clinch his third consecutive Rally Australia victory. With Rovanpera second, Peugeot secured their fifth consecutive 1 - 2 win of the year. Just 22 seconds behind Harri, Subaru's Petter Solberg took the last podium place. The last stage saw the retirement of Juha Kankkunen in the sole remaining Hyundai. A lack of engine oil pressure in the Accent WRC brought it to a standstill 18kms short of the finish line.

Reflecting on his third place, a jubilant Solberg said: "I'm very happy, it's a really good result, I hope we can get on the podium like this more often. We have to work hard now, too often the silver cars have been in front of us this year and I hate that! I'm delighted with the podium, especially after what happened in New Zealand, and I'm hungry for more."

If there was delight for Petter though, there was disappointment for his team-mate, Makinen, who was excluded following the final stage after his car was found to be under the regulation minimum weight.

Despite a protest by Subaru, the Stewards were not convinced and the Finn thus lost fourth place and the three points that went with it.

"I don't understand what happened," commented Makinen. "It's a great shame that we've come so far on the event only to finish it like this. There was certainly nothing deliberate involved and we'll have a good look into the incident to find out what happened. That's just the way it goes sometimes and you have to accept it."

Subaru Team Principal David Lapworth summed up proceedings by adding: "Looking specifically at Petter's performance, I think he did an excellent job. On this occasion and on these types of fast, open stage the Peugeots seem to have the edge, and despite his best efforts, Petter couldn't make the second place stick. But we can take some clear development objectives from our performance here and we will keep refining the car.

"As far as the exclusion is concerned, the judgement came as a big disappointment to Tommi and the team. Scrutineers weighed each car several times today and there seems to be a big variation between the figures they recorded for Tommi's car.

"After SS22 the car was weighed by scrutineers at 1260kgs (versus a minimum weight of 1230kgs) and after SS24 1271kgs. After SS23 the car was weighed at 1222kgs, and the only change was the removal of the spare wheel - an item that weighs less than 20kgs.

"The rules in this area are very clear, and we know that the cars are likely to be weighed at the end of every stage, so we clearly believed that the car was at its correct weight throughout the event. We will be making our own investigation into this situation.

"However, in the interests of the sport, we have decided to accept the judgement and will not appeal the Stewards' decision."

The next event is the final round of the 2002 World Rally Championship and starts on November 15th, when crews leave the Southern Hemisphere and travel to Wales for the Rally of Great Britain. Based in Cardiff, the gravel event is as famous for its tough stages through the forests of south Wales, as the wintry weather that can make the conditions even more treacherous.


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