Rally NZ: Solberg wins

Petter Solberg gave Subaru its first victory for the new Impreza WRC2004 in New Zealand. It was also the World Rally Champion's first win of the season and it moves him up to fourth in the points standings, three points behind series leader Markko Martin

Rally NZ: Solberg wins

Solberg may have won it, but it was a close run thing. Marcus Gronholm, who had harassed the Norweigen throughout the event, actually moved into the lead overall at one point during the final day and had he not spun with a sticking handbrake, the Finn may have won his first rally of the year.

Not only that, but having controlled the pace of the field from the front for the first two legs, Solberg hit a rock on SS20 which had been thrown up by another car and lost his power steering. He lost over 20s in the drama, and the lead to Gronholm.

"I came into a tight, right-hander, and hit something on the inside," Solberg said. "I think it had been moved by [Francois] Duval's car. Straight away the steering went and I had to do the rest of the stage with no power assistance at all. I think I was quite lucky in some respects. I've been doing a lot of weights recently!"

Subaru repaired the car during the lunchtime service, but Solberg lost out to Gronholm on the next stage, allowing the Finn to slightly expand his lead before the Peugeot driver spun. As a result, Solberg went into the final, 29.6km run along the Whaanga Coast with a 16s lead.

"It has been an incredible rally," he smiled. "If there's one man you don't want behind you on the final day, it's Marcus Gronholm. We were both pushing like hell out there. He had trouble, then I had trouble. I'm totally exhausted, but, overall, it's been really, really good fun. To win here is a great feeling."

There were several periods during the Rally NZ when Gronholm clearly had the fastest car in the event and the Finn came away encouraged by that, despite missing out on victory.

"It's been a very good rally for us, but the most important thing is that the car has taken a step forward," said Gronholm. "There are still some important developments to come, but all the team's hard work on the car is beginning to pay off and it's definitely heading in the right direction now.

"It's nice to be on the pace all the time and there are improvements still to come for the car. I'm very confident for the rest of the season."

Markko Martin, having shared the championship lead with Sebastien Loeb until this event, took it outright by finishing third. But even the Estonian's run to the finish was eventful: "The car hit a bank on one side of the road during a very fast section," he explained of his moment on SS22 - the penultimate stage. "It bounced across the track to hit the bank on the opposite side - it was a proper fifth gear incident, but we survived."

Citroen's Sebastien Loeb moved ahead of Harri Rovanpera's Peugeot 307 on the final day to snatch fourth. The Frenchman and his team-mate Carlos Sainz gave the new Xsara WRC 04 it's debut in New Zealand, and although both had trouble finding a decent balance on the car, it was the fact that Loeb was running first on the road on leg one that he reckons stopped him from fighting for the lead.

Rovanpera, having fought for the lead himself on leg one, eventually finished a distant fifth ahead of Sainz who never really figured all weekend. Mikko Hirvonen was seventh in the second Subaru.

Francois Duval was heading for eighth until he rolled on SS20 taking a wheel off his Ford Focus. The Belgian made his way back to the service area but lost 18m, handing the final points position to Swedish driver Daniel Carlsson in a Peugeot 206.

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Series WRC
Drivers Henning Solberg
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