Rallying: Gronholm beats nerves to secure victory for Ford

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The Independent Online

Marcus Gronholm took Ford's World Rally Championship team into the short winter close season brimming with confidence and ambition after delivering the first victory in their home event for 27 years.

The Finn returned to Wales Rally GB headquarters at the Millennium Stadium 1min 35.5sec ahead of his closest rival, Austria's Manfred Stohl in the Peugeot. Having led Ford to their first manufacturers' title since 1979, Gronholm has served notice of his intent to mount a genuine challenge to Citroën's Sébastien Loeb in the 2007 drivers' championship.

The absence of the champion, because of a broken arm, from the last four rallies of this campaign has given a distorted impression of the world championship. Until the Frenchman had his mishap while mountain biking, Gronholm was the best of the rest. But, as Gronholm demonstrated on the treacherously slippery stages of South Wales over the past three days, Ford are resurgent in the sport and their No 1 driver has rediscovered his hunger.

By yesterday Gronholm was clear of the pack and could only beat himself. He was justly wary of the conditions and ran at a conservative pace, complaining of ineffective windscreen wipers and demister. The gearbox of the Focus, he said, did not feel right. His nerves were palpable and he had a spin which drew from his time in the bank. But the tension evaporated as he safely negotiated the 27.11 miles of Trawscoed, the final stage.

Gronholm, who has seven wins this season, said: "It has been very difficult in these conditions and also because the pressure is on me to win this for Ford. There was a big gap between me and Manfred but I still had to go quite fast to make sure. We have finished the season strong and it looks good for next year. I am looking forward to that.''

The man most likely to have given Gronholm a contest here appeared to be his team-mate and countryman Mikko Hirvonen. But the younger driver was out by lunchtime on the first day.

Petter Solberg, winner here for the previous four years, took up the chase in his Subaru but took one liberty too many. The Norwegian, partnered by the Welshman Phil Mills, hit a gatepost on Saturday and dropped to third. That handed second place to Stohl, who embarrassed most of the factory runners with his measured drive.

Britain's only full-time WRC driver, Matthew Wilson, was pushing for a top-10 place in the Stobart Ford Focus until he had a spin yesterday. He finished 12th and said: "I was just glad to get to the end.''

Kris Meeke and Guy Wilks came to grief in the junior category after occupying first and second places on the opening leg.