Finland: Victory for Gronholm

Marcus Gronholm successfully completed his Rally Finland hat-trick with a crushing victory today. As has been the case in recent seasons, his closest challenger at the end was Richard Burns but this time Gronholm had it relatively easy

Finland: Victory for Gronholm

Although all three works Peugeots hit trouble of one sort or another during the event, Gronholm's woes were less than those of Burns and Harri Rovanpera, the latter the only one of the three to actually be forced out of the rally. Peugeot held all the aces and were beaten only five times for stage wins over the three days, four of those coming today when it was clear that the silver bullets had eased off to preserve their maximum points haul.

After just six stages the Peugeots were already in a class of their own and it would have been a travesty of justice had they not gone on to win. This was domination of Ferrari proportions and had the three drivers not had problems during the event the winning margin could have been hours rather than minutes. At around half a second a kilometre advantage, Peugeot is back in the driving seat and little else but a well aimed bullet to the foot will stop them claiming their third successive manufacturers' title and a second drivers' crown in three years.

Burns was clearly disappointed at the finish. "We came here to win but that didn't happen. However, the car was fantastic and while you can always make improvements it's worked very well this weekend." Burns was leading the event before he slam-dunked the car into the ground after a big jump yesterday and lost power, costing him nearly two minutes - a lifetime on an event usually decided by fractions of a second. From that moment he was destined to be the bridesmaid.

Rovanpera's retirement handed third place to Colin McRae but his good fortune turned sour two stages from the end when the Focus caught fire at the finish of SS20 and was burned to destruction. The team may never really find out what caused the £400,000 machine to self destruct. "We saw spectators trying to tell us something in the closing kilometres of the stage but didn't realise what they were pointing at until the fire had taken hold," said McRae. "If I had to guess at the cause it was probably a fractured oil or hydraulic pipe."

It wasn't a happy event for the McRaes as 'Little Al' retired with suspension failure. The new Mitsubishi was heralded as a step forward over the old but there seems little evidence of any great improvement on this showing. The frustrating thing for rivals Skoda and Hyundai is that their own misfortunes cost them the chance to sneak past the Lancers, Hyundai in particular ruing the roll that eliminated Juha Kankkunen from a probable points score yesterday (Saturday) morning.

Citroen couldn't reproduce its Safari form in Finland and there will be an interesting debrief following Thomas Radstrom's accident on the penultimate stage when he could easily have been consolidating a finish. With rumours circulating that Sebastien Loeb will be partnered next season by either Colin McRae or Carlos Sainz, Radstrom's chances of a contract with his name on it are starting to look slimmer than a Pirelli girl's waistline...

Gronholm and Peugeot have now regained a strong advantage in the championship with five rounds to go. The past three rallies have seen their grip loosen a little but maybe that was just too tempting to believe that there was a contest after all. Had the team taken the one-two in Argentina instead of being excluded, Gronholm was mathematically capable of winning the title in Finland this weekend and Peugeot the manufacturers' competition in Germany. That's going to have to wait a little longer but there is again an air of inevitability about it.

Finland was a Group N series event (the Super 1600 juniors are out to play on the next two rounds instead) and it saw Alex Fiorio take maximum points ahead of Kristian Sohlberg and Karamjit Singh. However, Singh continues to lead the series having successfully completed his first Rally Finland without major dramas. Most of this season has been new but the Asia-Pacific Champion will be more comfortable for the final two events in New Zealand and Australia. Victory next time out will clinch the series.

After a run of gravel rallies the series turns to asphalt in Germany and San Remo before heading half way round the world to New Zealand and Australia then back to Wales for the finale. It is unlikely to go to the wire in Cardiff but at least that means the post-title party will be held somewhere more socially acceptable than Wales on a wet November evening!

Leg 3am: Gronholm cruising home

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