Grönholm inherits Rally d'Italia win
"It's a great feeling to be back on top of the podium and the team deserves this result because everyone has been working so hard," said the 39-year-old Grönholm. "Fortunately we had our luck today when Seb crashed. It's nice to see he does not drive like a machine all the time!"
The Ford squad started the Rally d'Italia Sardegna on a high note, but it was Stobart M-Sport's junior driver Jari-Matti Latvala to clock the fastest time on the inaugural special stage on the the rough gravel roads in the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, with veteran team-mate Henning Solberg pocketing his first stage win of the year on SS3, before leaving the initiative to the works Ford and Citroën entries.
Grönholm took over the rally lead from Latvala after SS4, but the 'Flying Finn' couldn't distance himself from Loeb. In spite of his road sweeper role (due to the fact that the triple world champion was leading the overall championship before this round), Sébastien Loeb kept the pace with rally leaders, being in a position to benefit from a broken shock absorber on Grönholm's car to take the overnight lead.
The works Ford pair of Grönholm and Hirvonen along with Stobart's Henning Solberg were around the half a minute mark, with Sordo and P.Solberg leading the rest of the field. Surprise pace setter Latvala fell victim to his own impetuosity, colliding with a large rock on SS5 that broke the front suspension on his Ford Focus RS WRC06. He retired from leg 1 only to return on the following day under the SupeRally regulations.
There were no further surprise leaders on day 2, as Loeb and Grönholm traded all six stage wins, but it was the Citroën driver who gained time on his rival. Grönholm finished the day 36.5 seconds down on Loeb, with team-mate Hirvonen in a distant third. Citroën's number two driver Dani Sordo was engaged in a hard fought battle with Henning Solberg, whose younger brother Petter was half a minute further adrift.
Citroën asked their leading driver to adopt a conservative pace on the last day of the rally, but the task proved difficult for Loeb, who hit a big rock on the opening stage (SS13), later reporting the difficulty of finding the right rhythm. "I felt that I wasn't driving well and I had to push myself", Loeb said. Receiving the news about his rival during SS13, Grönholm found himself in the position of driving conservatively instead of charging for the lead.
Mikko Hirvonen did a good job in securing a very important second place for Ford, winning three of the final day's six stages in the process, while Sordo and H.Solberg took their battle for the last podium spot all the way to the finish line of the rally. The elder Solberg added two stage wins to his toll, while Sordo took one, but it was the Spaniard who claimed another confidence-boosting Top 3 finish on gravel.
Petter Solberg was fifth in his works Subaru Impreza WRC, while the privateer trio of Toni Gardemeister (Mitsubishi Lancer WR05), Manfred Stohl (Citroën Xsara WRC) and Juho Hänninen (Mitsubishi Lancer WR05) rounded out the points-awarding positions.
Loeb's second DNF of the season relegates him to second place in the overall standings, on 48 points, ahead of Hirvonen on 44. Thanks to their 1-2 finish in Italy, BP Ford now enjoys a 21-point advantage over inconsistent rivals Citroën Total WRT in the manufacturers' points table, with Stobart VK M-Sport taking third from Subaru WRT. The next round in the WRC calendar is the Acropolis Rally (May 31 - June 3), the last stop before the two-month summer break.
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