Rally New Zealand Wrapup

It came down to the last stage on the last day, but Petter Solberg got his championship defence back on track with a win in New Zealand. The Norwegian looked unstopable on the first two days, and he entered the final day with a 20+ second cushion over Marcus Gronholm. Gronholm, however, wasn’t ready to roll over and give up, and the two swapped the lead over the course of a tense final day.

Gronholm started the day by taking a chunk of time out of Solberg’s lead, but Solberg quickly responded and took back the time. It nearly all went wrong for Solberg on SS20, when he hit a rock and lost power steering in the Impreza. Suddenly his 20 second lead was a one second deficit. Gronholm, however, couldn’t take full advantage on SS21, only slightly expanding his lead. Then, on S22, Gronholm had his moment when his handbrake locked in a corner, spinning the 307 and costing Gronholm every second of his lead. SS23, the rally’s final stage, began with Solberg 16 seconds ahead of Gronholm. Gronholm went for the win, and blasted through the stage a full ten seconds faster than the rest of the field. Solberg, however, had the advantage of running after Gronholm, so he knew what he had to work with. Solberg drove conservatively, and finished 11 seconds adrift of Gronholm’s pace, giving him the rally with a five second cushion.

So, who had a good rally? Obviously, Petter Solberg, who is now only three points behind in a tight race in the championship standings. But Subaru won big as well, with Mikko Hirvonen taking seventh place, pushing Subaru only two points behind Ford for third place in the manufacturer’s championship. Hirvonen has exceeded expectations this season already — Subaru management must be pleased.

Peugeot had a good rally, despite Gronholm’s failure to win and Harri Rovanpera’s disasterous second day. Gronholm feels confident in the 307, and he proved it is just as fast the other cars on circuit. Gronholm will be a factor in the driver’s championship.

Ford had a mixed debut with the new Focus. Markko Martin took third place, but he never really challenged for the lead. Francois Duval had a rough time on the third day, going off and finishing the stage on three wheels. Citroen also had a less than stellar debut of the new Xsara. Seb Loeb took fourth, but, like Martin, was never in contention. Carlos Sainz’s sixth place, however, allowed Citroen to remain on top in the manufacturer’s race.

The big loser? Mitsubishi. Both Lancers succumbed to electrical gremlins between the first and second stages, and that was it — rally over. The team will bounce back however….

The championship moves to the rough stuff next stuff, with Cyprus, followed by Greece and Turkey. These are rallies with high rates of attrition — the championship race should have a distinctly different look in a month or two.