Peugeot's double world champion, Marcus Gronholm, won his fifth Rally Finland in six years on Sunday, ending Sébastien Loeb's six-rally winning streak with a dominant performance on home soil.

Peugeot's double world champion, Marcus Gronholm, won his fifth Rally Finland in six years on Sunday, ending Sébastien Loeb's six-rally winning streak with a dominant performance on home soil.



Gronholm, who had recorded his only WRC win of the 2004 season on the fast gravel forest stages around the Finnish town of Jyväskylä, won 11 of the 21 stages of this year's event to beat Citroën's Loeb by one minute 6,7 seconds and move to second position in the driver's standings on 83 points.


"It's been the perfect rally for us," Gronholm beamed at the end of the event. "We knew from the start that we could fight to win, but it was only last night, when we got a one-minute lead that we knew for sure that we were going to do it."


The Finn now ties countryman Tommi Makinen for the number of Rally Finland wins - although Makinen scored all five of his victories in consecutive years. Gronholm still has some work to do to set an outright win record, as rally legends Markku Alen and Hannu Mikkola have six and seven wins in the event, respectively.


Gronholm set a torrid pace on each of the event's three legs. The unintended victim of the pace, though, was his co-pilot (and brother in law) Timo Rautiainen, who injured his back on one of the heavy jumps on the Vellipohja stage on Friday. The duo lost time initially as Rautiainen couldn't read the notes for the rest of the stage - and Gronholm was forced to drive more carefully.


"It's not been an easy rally," the Finn added. "We were always pushing hard and I was very worried about Timo. To avoid injuring his back any more I was definitely backing off over some of the bigger bumps, which cost us time."


Defending champion Loeb effectively lost the rally on Saturday's leg, losing 30 seconds to Gronholm's pace and another 35 seconds to a puncture on final stage of the day.


"There was nothing I could do," Loeb said. "Marcus was simply faster. You have to know when to accept being beaten by an opponent of his calibre on his home ground. We put in a very good run -- but he put in a flawless performance."


But in spite of the second-place finish, Loeb is now closer to winning his second WRC championship. He has a 28-point edge on his closest challenger, Gronholm, with only six events remaining on the calendar. Three of those are tarmac events, and Gronholm has never recorded an outright WRC victory on an asphalt event.


"We gave him a very close run and we come away with eight valuable points," Loeb summed up the weekend. "In championship terms, this is an excellent result... but it's not a victory. Whenever a winning run like this comes to an end - even if you know it will stop one day - is bound to be a little bit sad."


"Victory has been pretty close before, but our car and tires have been a little behind," Gronholm explained. "Although it's fantastic to win here, we still have to keep working hard to improve the car because Finland is not really typical of most events."


As for Loeb, the dashing Frenchman was 29 seconds ahead of the third-placed driver, Markko Martin, in the second works Peugeot entry at the end of the event. While Martin wasn't thrilled with finishing in third - the Estonian won the event in 2003 - he was happier with his 307 WRC than he has been all year.


"I'm pleased," Martin was quoted as saying. "Not so much with third place, but with the fact that we were genuinely competitive here in Finland. This is down to many things, but above all the adjustments to the suspension have helped me a lot. For the first time I felt really confident with the car!"


While Martin wasn't able to challenge Loeb for second, he did help achieve what the team was hoping for in the manufacturers' title chase. With Gronholm's win and Martin's third place, Peugeot scored a near-maximum 16 points in the rally.


With the second Citroën driver, Francois Duval, only taking one point for eighth place, Peugeot moved ahead of its sister company in the manufacturers' title chase.


Subaru's Petter Solberg took advantage of a late puncture to Toni Gardemeister's Ford and held off former team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen (Ford), to claim fourth spot. The three had battled throughout Saturday for that position, and Gardemeister held the edge until the penultimate stage of the day.


The puncture dropped Gardemeister to seventh, but the Finn fought back on Sunday's morning stages, winning SS18 (Kuohu 1) and coming third on SS19 (Kruununpera 1) to keep countryman and Mitsubishi driver Harri Rovanpera out of sixth place.


"I attacked hard on the first two stages and that was enough to get by Rovanpera," Gardemeister said. "After that I was able to cruise because he was too far back to worry me. I had a tyre vibration on the second stage so I drove carefully to avoid any problems -- fast but safe."


Solberg had minor difficulties with his Impreza WRC on the first two days, but upped his pace toward the end, easily defending his position against Hirvonen's Focus WRC on Saturday.


"After the bad landing on Friday and the split brake pipe yesterday I have to be happy with fourth," Solberg said. "We made a number of changes to improve the setup yesterday and today, and I was happier with how we finished today."


Hirvonen, who made up significant ground on Solberg yesterday, simply ran out of time and stages to try to catch the Norwegian. However, his fifth place, along with Gardemeister's sixth, made up another solid points haul for Ford, who are now 10 points ahead of Subaru in the manufacturers' title quest.


Seventh-placed Rovanpera drove conservatively to ensure a points finish. He scored two points for Mitsubishi by crossing the finish line 40 seconds ahead of Duval's eighth-placed Citroën.


The WRC championship now takes a three-week break before the next event - the tricky vineyard roads and tank tracks of Rallye Deutschland. Loeb's Citroën has won the German event for the past three years... Can Gronholm - or anyone else - pose a serious challenge to the French world champion on the asphalt event?