Several Finnish drivers and defending champion Petter Solberg fell foul of the conditions in the arduous Rally of Finland, but Marcus Gronholm wowed ecstatic fans by giving the Peugeot 307 WRC its first official victory of the 2004 season.

Several Finnish drivers and defending champion Petter Solberg fell foul of the conditions in the arduous Rally of Finland, but Marcus Gronholm wowed ecstatic fans by giving the Peugeot 307 WRC its first official victory of the 2004 season.


The Finn led each day in the fast and challenging Rally Finland to score his fourth career win at his home event. The two-time WRC champion only had one relatively minor problem over the three-day event - no fourth gear for three stages on Saturday.


"We've waited a long time for this!" Gronholm said. "This is certainly a victory that we've had to work for, but that makes it all the more worthwhile. I wasn't completely confident when we started the rally, but things got better and we were able to keep the lead without pushing too hard."


The Peugeot team seemed destined for a disastrous weekend by the second morning of the event… Harri Rovanpera led in the early stages on day one before he slid off the course, rolled his car and had to retire. Sebastian Lindholm, at the wheel for the first time in the Peugeot 307, crashed while in second on day two. With both of Peugeot's other two Finns out, that left the only chance of victory with Gronholm and he took it.


Ford Focus driver Markko Martin finished second. Martin and Gronholm are now tied for third in the drivers' standings.


"This has been a really hard weekend," Martin said. "My body wasn't able to keep up with what my head was telling me to do. I really didn't expect it to be so difficult to drive but we've finished second and scored eight points so that is a good result. But I'm really happy it's over."


Citroën's Sebastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz both made it to the finish, with Sainz taking third place, 1:44 behind Gronholm, and Loeb another 30 seconds back.


”To finish on the podium after such a challenging rally, both physically and in terms of concentration, is a good result," Sainz said at the end of the event. "Above and beyond the numbers, the thing that gives value to our final positions is the way the team worked together to find solutions (and improve the car during the rally) to allow us to fight."


Subaru drivers Petter Solberg and Mikko Hirvonen both retired from the rally, but restarted under the current experimental rules. While Solberg was not classified and will not score points, he did score fastest times on nine of the rally's special stages.


"Petter paid a heavy price for his small mistake on Friday and I can't help but feel that, if he hadn't been ill, it would have been a completely different story," mused team principal David Lapworth. "Similarly, Mikko has shown the pace that we were hoping for, although his weekend was ruined too by one small mistake."


Gronholm is now back in the championship fight, tied for third with Martin with 42 points, and only two points behind second-placed Solberg. Loeb, though, has a substantial lead, with 66 points.


A behind-the-scenes report of the Rally of Finland is scheduled to appear in an upcoming edition of CAR magazine and CARtoday.com soon.