Gronholm snatches incredible win

Marcus Gronholm has beaten Sebastien Loeb to Rally New Zealand victory by just 0.3 seconds after the closest-fought world championship rally in many years

Gronholm snatches incredible win

The title rivals were inseparable throughout the last morning, swapping the lead three times in the final stages and being split by less than a second for most of leg three.

Gronholm had looked set for a dominant victory as he pulled away from the field on Friday, but Loeb reeled him in during leg two and grabbed the lead in the day's final stage.

The Ford driver inched back ahead by just 0.1 seconds in this morning's opening stage, before losing first position again in the next test.

Loeb extended his advantage to 2.9 seconds by the lunchtime service, but Gronholm then struck back by winning the repeat runs through Maungatawhiri, Te Hutawai and Whaanga Coast.

That gave him a 0.7 second lead going into the deciding Mystery Creek superspecial, where Loeb took the stage honours by 0.4 seconds - leaving him just three tenths of a second behind his victorious title rival after three incredible days of rallying.

The result brings Gronholm's championship lead back up to 10 points with five rounds remaining.

In contrast to the nail-biting tension of the lead battle, Mikko Hirvonen looked set for third from the very first stage of the weekend. He quickly dropped away from the title contenders, but always had a huge advantage over the rest of the field.

"I was disappointed on Friday morning and after that I was too far back to fight, so I concentrated on the third place," Hirvonen said. "But overall it's a good finish - six points and the last two days were quite good, so I'm really happy."

Chris Atkinson finally overcame Jari-Matti Latvala in the battle for fourth in the penultimate stage of the rally. Stobart Ford's Finn had moved ahead on Saturday but Atkinson closed in on him throughout this morning's stages as Latvala confessed to an excess of caution.

Although he promised to push harder in the afternoon, Latvala could not hold Atkinson off as the works Subaru driver retook the place by 4.6 seconds.

"We went for the soft tyre and I lost confidence in Whaanga Coast on the second time through," Latvala said.

"It was understeering a lot and I couldn't get the right speed anymore, and that's basically why we lost the battle. It's a good result but losing always feels bad."

Atkinson outpaced his Subaru team leader Petter Solberg all weekend. The former champion made progress with his Impreza's wayward handling as the rally progressed and gained ground on sixth-placed Dani Sordo throughout leg three, but was unable to catch the Citroen, finishing 12.7 seconds adrift.

"The car wasn't so bad today, it was not perfect but it worked much, much better," Solberg said.

The final point went to Junior series leader Urmo Aava, who was making his third appearance in a Mitsubishi Lancer WRC. Henning Solberg - who had lost eighth when he damaged his Stobart Ford's radiator on Saturday - ran out of time to catch the Estonian and had to settle for ninth, ahead of teammate Matthew Wilson.

"It's been a hard weekend, so what can you do?" said Solberg. "You can only look forward and do better next time."

Aava felt he could have pushed harder, but that the five minute gap to the rest of the field would have been insurmountable.

"It's a very good result for us," he said. "I think there's no possibility to be higher. I could've gone a little bit faster, but Petter is seventh and we couldn't have beaten Petter."

Outside the top ten, OMV Kronos Citroen driver Manfred Stohl set some rapid times during the final leg having rejoined under Superally regulations following his accident on Friday. He ultimately finished 12th, 33.3 seconds behind Munchi's Ford driver Federico Villagra.

Pos Driver Make Time 1. Gronholm Ford 3h 52:53.9 2. Loeb Citroen + 0.3 3. Hirvonen Ford + 1:42.8 4. Atkinson Subaru + 2:32.3 5. Latvala Ford + 2:36.9 6. Sordo Citroen + 3:42.0 7. P Solberg Subaru + 3:54.7 8. Aava Mitsubishi + 9:16.3 9. H Solberg Ford + 9:54.6 10. Wilson Ford + 10:19.9 
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Series WRC
Author Matt Beer
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