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RALLIRINKI interviewed Estonian rallying hero Markko Märtin and he took us to an in-depth talk on how he experienced the highly competitive 2003 event. Here you will learn why he made that daredevil jump on Ouninpohja, what exactly caused his biggest close call in the event and what Märtin and Burns did bets on in Rally Finland.
At the end of the 2002 season Ford lost its seasoned star drivers as Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae both left to join Citroën. This left you with a clear lead driver’s role for Ford. You had proven your speed earlier, but before the 2003 season the debut win was yet to come.
”I was an up and coming driver at that moment. I had some potential and had had some very good results from previous years, but always something happened. It never came together to win an event.
“In 2003 I was really hoping to win an event finally. I was mainly looking forward getting the new car we were developing at the time. We were expecting that to be a good step forward. I did very much like that car already in the tests. The couple of first rallies into the season with the old car we just wanted to go through and hoped the new one would be a proper one.”
The all new Ford Focus WRC03 debuted in the fourth event of the season in New Zealand. It was the first Focus WRC designed by Christian Loriaux.
”We came to Ford together from Subaru. I knew him. Already the year before (2002) he was doing good adjustments to the previous model, but obviously there were some limitations to what he could do with it. This new car was 100 percent from a clean paper and it proved to be quite a game changing car also for the following years.”
Focus WRC03 was fast straight out of the box. In New Zealand you and co-driver Michael Park tailed Marcus Grönholm in the second place until an engine issue forced a retirement. Some teething issues followed in the next events as well.
”We had quite many problems that cost us good results, but okey, that’s how it was.”
Finally in Acropolis Rally all came together and you and Michael claimed your first WRC victory. What kind of effect had that victory for your preparations to Rally Finland, knowing you wanted badly to win in Finland?
”I think Greece was alright. It was important to get the first win and we were happy with that, but when you come to Finland, it’s a completely different ball game and obviously I wanted to do well. I remember my co-driver Michael saying ”you never do well here, because you have so much pressure to do well”. It’s a tough one. I think that year we came to Jyväskylä like every other year. We have had good preparations and aimed to do well. Rally started well too and we had big fight with Marcus.”
On many of the pre-event interviews and press conferences Peugeot trio (Grönholm-Burns-Rovanperä) mentioned you as the biggest favorite to win the event. Do you think that was just psychological games, loading more pressure on you?
”I think it was genuine fear. They had seen the speed the car was doing. They had seen some footage from the tests and the car was really, really good on gravel. I think it was genuine fear. They had realized there was going to be a proper fight from Ford that year. I had my own extra pressures anyway.
”I think it’s more fun what the organizers did that year, having that ad campaign about how foreign drivers lose the rally before it starts. If anything, that was more likely to show it was not like that anymore. It was (characters of) me, Burns and McRae who were doing some things in different places on those ads.
Those TV ads have remained a classic among rallying people. That voice of a co-driver shouting: ”Markko, Markko, kus sa oled. Start on kahe minuti pärast, kurat!” while the driver is hiding behind birch trees (Estonian for ”Markko, Markko, where are you? Start is in two minutes, damn it!”). What was your first reaction to those ads?
”It was quite brave and sharp advertising for sure. I don’t honestly remember much, but I remember discussing it with Burns how Finns were getting a bit cocky there. It’s usual pressure, you want to go and beat the locals. The fun part was that in the end it was one of the worst (Rally Finland) rallies for Finns with Tommi being sixth, the best Finn. The ad was fun and nothing personal, no hard feelings. It showed how the results should never be shouted beforehand. It backfired big time for Finns.”
Your good appearances and success in early 2000s Rally Finland meant there were more and more Estonian fans coming over to support you every year. By 2003 it looked like Estonian fans had outnumbered everyone else…
”I think everybody brought flags which separated Estonian fans from the rest. I’m sure there were a lot of other fans as well, but they didn’t bring their flags. I remember the first stage we did we could see one Estonian flag and then the next one throughout the stage. It was like driving at home.”
”At the time it was fun. There were a lot of Norwegian fans and Finns were active too. Fans had their own fun at the stages. It was a bit like a football match where fans are very active. It was a good fight between the drivers as well as between the fans. Fans are not that passionate anymore.”
I’ve noticed how Ott Tänak’s current success has generated same kind of interest from Estonian fans. It could be this year we see a lot of Estonian flags again.
”Now it’s easier for Estonian fans to get over there. Many of them live in Finland anyway. At the time there was a lot of traveling, but now I think there will be quite a lot of people coming from Finland, but wearing Estonian flags.”
The competition in 2003 Rally Finland turned out extremely close. You were exchanging tenths of a second with Marcus Grönholm. When you were faster on one stage, Marcus answered on the next.
At the time Grönholm retired, you had the biggest time difference between you and it was only 4,7 seconds in Grönholm’s favor. How stressful it was to keep that pace stage after stage on such a fast rally as Finland?
”I think Marcus was pissed off when he had his wheel problem and retired, but I’m pretty sure somehow he was relieved too that it ended. I was relieved that it ended. The pace we were going was a little bit too much and I think there were absolutely no way we would have finished the rally with trying to catch that 4,7 seconds from one driver or the other. One of us would have crashed for sure and it would’ve been a big one.”
It appeared you both had some close calls along the process.
”He was lucky before, went in the ditch and came back. My biggest moment that was in the TV as well was really not my driving mistake. It was a big slide on a left hand corner. There’s a story behind it. On that stage we had an electrical problem. We were cooling down the chassis control box, holding it out the window on road sections and then it was working for the first couple of kilometers of the stage before it stopped working again. That slide happened in a place when it just stopped working. We were coming really fast there and then the issue appeared, differentials stopped working at that braking. I had absolutely no diff pressure. I couldn’t slow down for that corner and didn’t have the grip you always have. It just happened in a very fast place, I had no warning. I think we were hugely lucky to get away with it.”
On such a nerve breaking and risky battle, was it ever an option to back off and go more safe?
”No, I don’t think so. The only option was to put more pressure.”
”That is because Marcus was so close. We had to keep the pressure on, the both of us. Had the other driver backed off, then there would have been a bigger gap and the driver in front could have backed off as well.”
”Like I said before, luckily it was the failure (in Marcus’ car) that stopped the fight. If it wasn’t like that, there would have been an off.”
You mentioned the electrical dysfunction that appeared in your Focus WRC03 right after leaving midday service on Saturday. What were your initial feelings when you realized the issue?
”You can imagine, it wasn’t very pleasant feeling, but it really happened like that. When we reversed out of the service, that moment all the lights went on in the dashboard. It wasn’t in the service, just the moment when we reversed out. Nothing anybody could do about it anymore. We were very unlucky. If it would’ve been one kilometer or 200 meters before the service it would have been fine and fixed, but it happened just when we left. “
”Of course it was clear it was game over. We couldn’t fight on anymore and hanging on to the second place would have been good enough. I was totally pissed off. The big jump we made in Ouninpohja, that is now famous, that only happened because I was so pissed off. ”I’m not gonna lift, I don’t care. The car is broken anyway.” It was not very clever thing to do.
But it was a good place to be pissed off, because now everybody remembers those pictures. You made history there with that 57 metres jump at The Yellow House.
”Yeah. But it was still a stupid thing to do.”
Well, true, bearing in mind what happened to Richard Burns on that jump the year before, when he lost his chance of a victory landing hard there and damaging the cooler.
”We used to do bets with Burns who’s gonna be faster in Ouninpohja. In 2001 we were both in Subarus and first run, he had a puncture, so I beat him, but he started to moan ”I had a puncture, it’s not fair”. So, let’s do the bet again, results from the second run. That time he was faster, so he picked the money. 2002 he was doing really well in the rally (in Peugeot) and the 2002 Ford we had was not good nor fast anymore. Before the rally we agreed with Burns we will count only the first run of Ouninpohja for the bet. I was slower on every stage except Ouninpohja. It was the only stage he was slower than me as he hit the trouble. I think the first thing he said when crossing the finish line, saying to Robert: ”Oh shit, we lost the bet!”
After Marcus Grönholm retired the 2003 event, Richard Burns became the closest opponent, but on the last stage on Saturday his Peugeot had a similar wheel bearing issue as Grönholm have had. This dropped him a minute behind.
Going to the overnight break you held a solid lead, knowing just keeping the car on the road would secure Rally Finland victory. How did you sleep that night?
”I don’t think there were any problems with sleeping. It was so easy after we didn’t have to fight with Marcus anymore. It was fun to drive, no stress, big gaps, no big problems. We had so huge stress and pressure before. It was a relief to go 90 percent and not to worry about not finishing the event. “
”Only time I remember (getting stressed about winning) was before the last stage. We had gravel crews at that time. Usually I had one other guy doing it for me, but on Rally Finland it was a stand-in guy. On the last checkpoint where we exchanged the gravel notes, before the final stage, that guy said ”ooh, just one stage to go”. Nothing else, and I was like ”Oh shit” and it really put me off. Before that I had no problem at all, but that one little comment really unsettled me. We even had some moments in the last stage. Burns and Solberg were fighting for 2nd place and we wanted for fun to show we can beat them, even if we didn’t have to go faster than them. We had a moment and then we realized, that’s it, no need to do stupid things for fun.”
When your and Michael’s victory was secured, a huge party began for Estonian fans. It was clearly a big thing for Estonians, highlighted by the sudden visit of your prime minister Johan Parts to the service park.
”I remember Michael saying about the prime minister’s visit that ”what is he doing here? What’s the point of that?”
”I normally hate podiums. That was the worst part of winning. The job was done, I was happy with that. I left to go home. Yes, for sure it was a big thing for Estonians. Some friends who were spectating and when they went back home, they said it was mad on the ferries. Crazy parties, people went absolutely crazy. That’s the thing I don’t really care, the celebrating, because life goes on. The next rally you have your new challenge.”
Do you remember it was the same car you won in Finland that you had won in Acropolis?
”Yeah. Focus WRC03 is still a favorite. I own two of them. I don’t drive them very often, but every time I do, I just keep smiling. It drives very smoothly. It’s not the fastest car anymore, but it’s great fun.”
What is your current relationship to Rally Finland?
”I’ve been there for almost every year. We run cars with our team there. I think I’ve been to every Rally Finland since 2010. I am still working together with Tänak a little bit. This year he has done very well. In Finland I think his main challenge comes from his team mates. It will be tough for Tommi to handle that battle.”
”Some people that are not related to me seem to remember Rally Finland 2003 so well. It must’ve been the feeling that rally had. I think the atmosphere was really, really good. I think that atmosphere is coming back now. Some years in Jyväskylä were bored. I think 2003 was the highlight of that atmosphere.”