8 February 2017

Ten years on, memories of Grönholm the Great

Jerry Williams has been covering rallying for more than 40 years, attending World Rally Championship events across the globe to get all the insider knowledge.

It was a big shock when I realised this week that 2017 is the 10th anniversary of Marcus Grönholm’s fifth and final victory on the Swedish Rally. He retired at the end of that year and it has always astonished me how quickly great drivers fall out of your consciousness.

In 2007 Grönholm beat his nemesis, Sébastien Loeb, in Sweden by just over 53 seconds after an intense three-day battle. He had many more stage wins that event - 11 to Loeb’s three - but whenever the big Finn won, Loeb was inevitably a close second-fastest.

Marcus was always seen as something of a grump. I prefer to think of him as being forthright. I liked him a lot. He would never hold back an opinion if he thought something was wrong.

As a Finn from the country’s south west, his first language was Swedish and he never had much truck with that well-known “Finnish Mafia” of drivers and managers. Many would have seen not being part of that circle as a huge handicap. Some even said that established figures in Finnish rallying tried to block his path. In a 2007 interview I asked him if that had been a problem.

He thought; then said: “Yes, there were times I thought I might not make it. It was difficult to find sponsors and money and I didn’t have a chance for a programme of six or seven rallies. For me it would be two or three. I didn’t have the big money back-up. I could do the Finnish championship and a few WRC rallies only.”

So were there any advantages? “Yes, it was quite OK to fight by my own way.” Then he added, with a contemptuous curl of his lip: “Now there are no people who are taking 50 per cent of my money!”

Make no mistake: Grönholm is one of the seminal figures of the WRC. His 30 victories have been beaten by only the two Sebs, Loeb, and Ogier. He was a brilliant star at Peugeot, where he took his two world championships and for two years, he was the rock that Malcolm Wilson’s Ford team relied on. In each of those years he finished second overall to Loeb. But both times Ford grabbed the manufacturers’ title – thanks to Marcus.

He was a gangling 6ft 4 in and I always wondered how he managed to fold himself into a rally car. At just 21 he drove in his first WRC event: Sweden, of course. Loeb, his greatest rival, was 25 when he did the same. But it was 11 more years before Grönholm won for the first time. Compact, little Loeb took only three years to rise from novice to winner. I can still hear the big Finn – nicknamed “Bosse” – complaining frustratingly after one event: “I would be the world’s fastest Tarmac rally driver if Loeb did not exist!”

Gronny was a private driver for a full decade, albeit sometimes with Toyota works support, before the then-Peugeot team manager, the cigar-toting Italian, Corrado Provera, saw something in him and took a punt. It was Grönholm’s big break and came after Provera had watched him set eight fastest times in Sweden against four by Toyota team leader Carlos Sainz.

The next year, 1999, was just a five-event job. But it brought a fourth place in Finland and Gronny knew the little Peugeot 206 would be his passport to the top.

We spoke to him on San Remo that year. He’d been fourth and going higher but spun, got stuck and dropped to eight. “Ach, it was stupid of me, this car is fantastic,” he said. Then we asked how many asphalt events he’d done. “Ach, I think this is maybe only number four,” he replied. Enough said!

He took two world titles in the ‘silver bullet’ Peugeot 206 he loved, the first when he was 32; an age when WRC drivers are either established stars or just going over the hill. Gronholm, though, was only getting started. 

Grönholm and his Toyota Celica at the 1997 Swedish Rally

Then PSA’s marketing suits decided that the ugly-duckling 307 cabrio needed a sales boost. It became Peugeot’s rally weapon and, despite budgets of £50 million a year, was a failure. Grönholm disliked it intensely.

I remember him yelling from the cockpit at the stop line of a stage in Mexico after something had gone wrong: “I HATE this car.”

For sure, he drove his nuts off in it. But trying to match the speed of Loeb, comfortable in his Xsara, meant a constant risk of crashes. Considering Grönholm was then thought the world’s fastest rally driver it was a travesty that he only won three events in two years campaigning a 307.

Then Peugeot abruptly pulled out. Marcus switched to Ford and found Malcolm Wilson’s compact outfit a pleasant revelation. Although the French team had been fine when winning with the 206, the 307 had brought only tensions; the whole team became autocratic and drivers Grönholm, Richard Burns and later Markko Martin were largely cut out of the loop.

Neither did it help that management had crassly employed Burns on about £1.5 million more than team leader Grönholm, although he quickly enforced a big rise.

How different it was at Ford. There, he was constantly cuddled: decisions took minutes, not weeks and the Focus was moulded to him.

Not that he held back when anything wasn’t quite right. After one day of the Sardinia rally, in 2006, then-TV interviewer Gaye Grinsted asked how things had gone: “Shit!” he snapped. She persisted: “How about three words to explain it?” Grönholm peered down at her: “Not. Very. Good. Today. There, that is FOUR words.”

He had reasonable, if broken, English, which made some of his quotes highly memorable. After one slippery, difficult day on the Deutschland Rally he pulled up at the in-control, full of frowns and immediately launched a verbal Exocet: “I had the hardest tyres and oy, oy, oy it was like driving with shit in the trousers all the time.”

Gronny knew the Peugeot 206 would be his pass to the top

Although Grönholm took his time getting to the WRC his background almost dictated a motorsport life. His father Ulf was a double Finnish champion, and his older cousin Sebastian Lindholm won that title seven times.

Grönholm actually started off in motocross aged 13, the year his father was killed in a head-on crash with a snow plough while practising for the HankkiRalli in Finland. It was a huge blow to the youngster.

Then in 1986, he badly smacked his knee motocrossing and at the age of 18 changed to driving rally cars at Lindholm’s suggestion. After his final event, Rally GB, he said that although he sometimes thought about giving up, especially in the early years, it helped that his co-driver and brother-in-law Timo Rautiainen was always there. They formed one of the WRC’s most enduring partnerships. That Rally GB was Gronny’s 150th start, 142 of them with the ever-thoughtful Rautiainen, who never held back from being outspoken if he thought it necessary. You still see Timo on events; mostly as an FIA steward these days.

After that final Rally GB, Marcus confessed: “Last year I could have been champion but it was Loeb’s because he was so much in front. We had a new car and small problems and suddenly we were 20 points behind and it was impossible. This year we have been in the same position that Loeb has had for many years. Only my two mistakes took away the title.”

I asked him if there were any regrets: “Yes, of course: I could have had five wins more at least if I had better luck. Yes, I did a few mistakes but I am happy. It is OK. I have to say I have been satisfied with my career. I am happy.”

Today he runs a management company, mentoring young Finnish drivers and took on most of the early testing of VW’s aborted new-generation Polo. 

Against all odds this late starter is the Finn with the most victories ever. He’s worth quite a few millions and owns a large farm and a shopping centre.  

Not bad for someone who didn’t win a WRC event until he was 34, eh?

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