It’s clear without saying Marcus Grönholm was extremely disappointed when retiring from the lead of Rally Finland 2003 on the second run of Ouninpohja stage. Rallirinki called Grönholm and asked how he remembers that year now.
Reading time < 4 minutes
Peugeot driver Marcus Grönholm started his 2003 season as a reigning World Champion. He has taken his second world title in 2002 following a series of wins in the dominant Peugeot 206 WRC. 2003 was the fourth full season for 206 WRC and it was clear Peugeot were to bring a new car for the next season.
”We had high hopes for the 2003 season. We were very well aware how the development work in the other teams had taken major steps forward and we were starting the season in a practically five years old car. We tried to get all the performance out of the car, every last bit and that’s why the car had small issues throughout the season. We had good speed for sure”, Grönholm says.
He is correct about the proper speed. Grönholm had taken three outright victories and missed one victory nearly on German tarmac when arriving to Rally Finland 2003.
”But we had way too many retirements.”
In the championship points table before Finland, Grönholm was the third placed driver behind his team mate Richard Burns and Citroën driver Carlos Sainz.
Season 2003 saw a rule change regarding how points were distributed, most notably giving less value to victory as it remained worth 10 points whereas 2nd place gained now 8 points instead of previous 6 points. Had points scoring rules remained the same, Grönholm would have had a solid championship lead into Rally Finland.
”Really? I didn’t know that. That old system clearly suited me better, because I was always driving for the victory, maybe too much one could say now. I was never driving to score safe points”, Grönholm analyses his well-known style.
Grönholm and his co-driver Timo Rautiainen had won Rally Finland three times in 2000-2002. Did that dominant success on home soil bring extra pressures to repeat the victory in 2003 as well?
”We were always aiming to win in Rally Finland. I can’t recall there being any extra pressures in 2003.”
Pretty much every single interview of every single Peugeot driver prior to Rally Finland 2003 mentioned a quote saying Markko Märtin on Ford would be the favorite to win. Were you really thinking so or was that only putting the pressure on someone else’s shoulders?
”It was psychological games. We were very confident that we could win Rally Finland again. We knew, however, that it was going to be a tough fight with Märtin”, Grönholm recalls now.
”We had an issue that prevented me from driving the pre-event tests as planned. We we were supposed to have the tests in early July, but I was lying in a hospital with a severely infected elbow.”
Grönholm describes how his elbow ”was swollen into a big ball”. In a news piece from the day, true to rallying drivers’ style, Grönholm insisted he ”hadn’t hit the elbow anywhere, it just got infected”. It was a serious situation and Grönholm spent many days in the hospital.
He recovered by the time of Rally Deutschland in mid July and drove his Rally Finland pre-event tests on the weekend before the event.
”That elbow incident didn’t bother much in the end. We did know the car and the roads very well.”
Rally Finland 2003 proceeded stage after stage with Grönholm and Märtin exchanging seconds. Rally leader changed from Märtin to Grönholm and back to Märtin during the Friday leg, but Grönholm reclaimed the lead on the first pass through Ouninpohja stage on Saturday morning.
”Jyväskylä is always a damn stressful event. There is nothing, not a single part, which you could drive a bit easier. One just had to fight for those seconds, simple. It never crossed my mind that I could make a mistake and crash out. Had I started to think about that, it would have taken out that extra tenth from my driving.”
The memorable battle between Grönholm and Märtin, a Finn and an Estonian, a Peugeot and a Ford driver, unfolded prematurely on Saturday afternoon. After midday service on Saturday Märtin faced problems with his Ford Focus WRC03’s electronics and started to lose crucial seconds.
”Before Ouninpohja 2, I remember Märtin complaining how their car had some electric issues and they had to cool down some control unit because it was overheating.”
”I knew they would lose time on Ouninpohja, but regardless I decided to make a maximum attack. I thought I would make a proper gap so I wouldn’t have to drive all that crazy afterwards and I could dominate from the lead.
”Oh well. Then at the beginning of the small road (about 22 kilometres into the stage) we got that wheel bearing problem and the next moment I see my front wheel overtaking me from the front! Can you guess how disappointed I was?” Grönholm vividly explains the situation.
”I was very disappointed. I think all I did after retiring was returning to the service park from the stage with a helicopter, packing things up in the hotel room and leaving for home.”
Marcus Grönholm is still strongly involved in rallying. He has over recent years been development testing the binned Volkswagen Polo WRC 2017. He also runs an RX team for his son Niklas Grönholm and GRX Management team which has built career for Finnish rallying talent Jari Huttunen.
”I’m visiting Rally Finland every year. Last year I was playing around with a Toyota Yaris WRC in Harju stage. It was fun.”
Early to mid 2000s is remembered for the huge number of Estonian rally fans coming over to Jyväskylä. This year Ott Tänak’s success might result in similar way as did Märtin’s success 15 years ago. There’s also quite a few favorites to win this year’s Rally Finland. Do you see any other similarities between 2003 and now?
”Well”, he ponders. ”There’s only one World Champion driving at the moment. Back in the day there could’ve been five or more World Champions. Sainz, Mäkinen, Auriol, Mcrae, Burns, Solberg. Many of the drivers today have that raw speed, but they need more consistency. In the end Ogier always wins. Toyota drivers are all damn fast, but regarding the title fight what they need is consistency in collecting points.”
Grönholm shares the record of Rally Finland victories with Hannu Mikkola, both conquering the gravel classic seven times.
”I should have won in 2003, so it would’ve been 8 victories”, Grönholm laughs, but also means it.
His will to win hasn’t retired.