It was almost like the countdown to a space shuttle launch, except that the numbers got jumbled.
The final stages of last weekend’s Rally of New Zealand produced the closest finish in World Rally Championship – and Rally NZ – history, as Ford’s Marcus Gronholm fended off a late-rally attack from current world champion and Citroen team leader Sebastien Loeb.
It was nail-biting stuff, tense enough to spur Gronholm to a rare outburst of swearing when told of the ultra-slender margin he had opened over Loeb at the end of one special stage.
Each was giving his utmost to try to take the win, Loeb admitting that he was taking big risks as he pushed to close down the result.
Gronholm had led the rally from the opening test on Friday morning, and by the end of the day was exactly 13 seconds ahead of the Frenchman.
Gronholm was making the most of a canny tyre compound choice and a reversal of the usual gravel rally situation.
Running first on the road on surfaces that were unexpectedly damp, he had the best of the grip: usually being first car over the stages is a disadvantage as the driver sweeps the surface of loose, dusty gravel.
But it was Loeb who was struggling. He and Citroen had chosen BF Goodrich (Michelin) tyres of too soft a compound.
After two stages, Loeb trailed Gronholm by more than 14 seconds. He made set-up changes and chose different tyres for the afternoon, won the two public road stages and headed Gronholm on the super-special at Mystery Creek, to shave 1.7 seconds off the Finn’s lead.
Gronholm, who was suffering from flu, said he would push hard on Saturday to try to take more time out of Loeb.
The Frenchman said the changes he made to the C4 WRC’s set-up had been “very beneficial: that’s encouraging for the rest of the weekend.”
They were prophetic words. On Saturday’s first test, he cut Gronholm’s lead to 9.9 seconds before the Finn re-opened it to 14.9 on the next stage.
Then Loeb dealt a hammer blow, emerging from SS8 just 3.6 seconds off the lead: the see-sawing battle was well and truly joined.
Gronholm filched back four-tenths of a second by winning the Mystery Creek super-special.
Loeb got three tenths back on the long Te Akau South stage, and then cut the margin to 1.7 seconds on the Te Akau North stage which ended Leg 2.
Ford’s rally PR machine said the day’s battle had reached a “remarkable intensity” and said Gronholm and co-driver Timo Rautiainen faced a “thrilling final leg” fight with Loeb and his co-driver Daniel Elena.
But Ford’s PR crew couldn’t have anticipated just how much more intense the battle would become on the Sabbath.
Gronholm drove the Focus RS’s wheels off on the 8km Maungatawhiri stage as the rally moved into the Raglan district.
It was good enough to regain the lead – by a tenth of a second from Loeb.
On the next, slightly longer charge along the Te Hutewai test, Loeb said: “take that” and opened a five-tenths of a second margin over the Finn.
On the long, twisting and turning run along Whaanga Coast, Loeb consolidated his lead, adding a further 2.4 seconds.
Gronholm cut three-tenths off that on the second run through Maungatawhiri, and emerged from Te Hutewai 2 back in the lead – by two-tenths of a second, the margin that prompted him to utter the rare oath.
He eked out another five-tenths by driving 11-tenths on the second pass through Whaanga, beating Loeb by a scant nine-tenths of a second in a tortuous and demanding 29.8km.
They went to the final showdown on the Mystery Creek super-special seven-tenths of a second apart.
Gronholm’s eyes were fixed, almost drilling holes through the windscreen as he sat on the startline and blasted off. Three kilometres later he completed the sprint in 2m 52.9s.
Loeb launched the Citroen – his lines tighter, more precise than the flamboyantly tail-sliding Finn’s.
He won the test, but came up three-tenths of a second short of victory.
It had been an amazing end to an astonishingly close battle between the sport’s current greatest drivers.
Mikko Hirvonen drove the second works Ford to a lonely third place, 1m 42.3s behind the winner. Hirvonen’s hopes of battling for the lead had ended with a wrong tyre choice on Friday morning.
“I made one wrong tyre choice and I was out of the battle.”
Australian Chris Atkinson finished fourth in the works Subaru after closing in on young Finn Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) and passing him on Sunday afternoon.
Dani Sordo completed the top six in the second works Citroen.
Gronholm was elated with his win, and now leads Loeb in the drivers’ series by 10 points (he has 90).
Gronholm and Hirvonen have boosted Ford’s manufacturers’ series lead to 159 points, 46 ahead of Citroen.
Gronholm said the battle with Loeb had been “the closest and best” of his career.
“I’m delighted to have won it.
“There wasn’t room for a single missed gearchange. I stayed calm in the rally car – that’s something I’ve learned from many years’ practice of attacking.
“The only big stress came with choosing tyres, because the conditions were inconsistent, and when it’s as close as it has been here, then one wrong tyre choice would have ruined everything.”
Gronholm quipped that he had been working so hard that he must have sweated out the flu because after the first day, it hadn’t really troubled him.
“This win is fantastic for my championship hopes.”