Can Gronholm rock on the rolling stones?

Marcus Gronholm can clinch the World Rally Championship this weekend but he'll need to turn in a spectacular performance in Australia to do so.

Can Gronholm rock on the rolling stones?

As championship leader the Peugeot ace, very much this season's surprise package, will have to blast the 206WRC into the Western Australia forests first on the road. Thanks to the presence of the unique 'ball-bearing' gravel surface (quite literally a layer of small round bauxite stones), traction will be very much reduced and later runners, as many as seven or eight cars behind the Finn, will have a definite advantage.

Tactics will therefore play a major part in the event as Gronholm aims to keep his inevitable time loss to a minimum while his title rivals; Richard Burns, Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and, to a lesser extent, Tommi Makinen will be doing everything they can to keep Gronholm in the rally lead until the final day when they can finally push past.

Peugeot is very much a dark horse for this event. Although the French team was present last season the 1999 version of the 206 was a fast but fragile beast. Now it can be the class of the field although the team's back to back 1-2 successes in Corsica and San Remo offer no realistic form guide this time out.

Burns knows that he's got to use his perceived advantage in Australia to full effect if he wants to erase the memory of a dreadful summer that saw what seemed to be a convincing championship lead wiped out. The Oxford driver is struggling at the moment, hanging on to second place in the series as much by luck as judgement but Australia and the upcoming Rally GB are considered two of the Subaru driver's strongest events.

Ford's season has gone from strength to strength but Australia is not an event that has looked kindly on the Blue Oval. Ford has yet to win here and although McRae (who starts his 100th WRC event in Australia) has tasted champagne in his Subaru days, Sainz has also been dealt an unkind hand too often in the past.

As for Makinen, nothing short of a win will do. Third place in San Remo, ahead of the title chasers, brought him back into the frame but the event where he has twice clinched championship crowns will have to be good to him this time out. Of course, coming out of the traps in fifth place could see him ideally placed over the opening day.

The rest are likely to be bit-part players although Burns' team mate Juha Kankkunen could be Subaru's ace in the pack from a four-car team that also includes Petter Solberg and Markko Martin on his first drive for his 2001 employers. Kankkunen loves this event, has won four times (albeit not recently) and if he's fired up might just take points away from those who need them most.

Rally Oz is the championship's most popular event and a great place to party. The question is, however, will it be champagne in the sun for Gronholm or must it be put on ice until after the long drag back to cold and wet South Wales?

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