Loeb started the weekend looking for a sixth consecutive win to strengthen his already suffocating grip on a third world title but a blown tyre on Saturday ruined his chances. Ford driver Gronholm led from stage one and held off Loeb’s spirited challenge before his Citroen rival dropped off the pace.
Gronholm cruised through the final five stages yesterday, completing his third victory of the season in Athens’ Olympic Stadium with a winning margin of two minutes 26.8 seconds from Loeb. The Finn said:
“It’s great to experience the winning feeling again.
“We have been on the pace all year but had some bad luck, but we are back on the top step of the podium.
“It’s satisfying to win such a tough rally. The car was strong and fast all the way through and that was down to the hard work during our test.
“It was terribly rough and I could never drive with total confidence because I knew how easy it was to damage the car on the rocks.”
Loeb was left to rue his tyre problems, saying: “It was a very rough rally. If I hadn’t had the puncture, I might have been able to fight with Marcus.”
Gronholm’s team-mate Mikko Hirvonen stood on the podium for the second rally in succession after finishing third, while Citroen driver Toni Gardemeister took a surprise fourth. Elsewhere, Valentino Rossi won an epic duel with Loris Capirossi to win the Italian Grand Prix for the fifth consecutive year at Mugello to breathe new life into his world championship challenge.
In front of 90,000 home fans, local hero Rossi started on the front row for the first time this season and capped a thrilling race by passing Capirossi on the penultimate lap to win. His second win of the season leaves Camel Yamaha star Rossi 34 points off the championship lead as the world champion battles to recover from a troubled start to the campaign.
Capirossi’s only consolation after being beaten into second place, despite a valiant fight through the grid from eighth place on lap one, was a share of the championship lead. The Ducati Marlboro rider is tied with Nicky Hayden, who came third, on 99 points. Hayden’s Repsol Honda team-mate Dani Pedrosa was fourth after surviving a hectic scramble for position on the final few laps, just holding off Sete Gibernau.