Finnish drivers going into the final round of a championship with a title on the line is nothing new. Tommi Mäkinen did it frequently during his heyday in the driver’s seat. So too did his successor as Finland’s torchbearer in the World Rally Championship, Marcus Grönholm.
This tale doesn’t take place in the WRC, nor its Finnish heartland of Jyväskylä, though. Last Saturday, about 125 miles west of the WRC rally’s base, the Pohjanmaa Ralli was reaching fever pitch. Finnish Rally Championship glory was on the line with three stages to go.
One-point-five was the magic number; the number of seconds separating the two title contenders in first and second, and the points coefficient for the season finale. It was winner-takes-all rallying in the truest sense, as two-time champion Teemu Asunmaa was being hunted down by European Rally Championship regular Emil Lindholm.
Lindholm had been a bit too conservative on the first stage of the rally the previous evening and shipped 4.7s straight out of the gate.
But after some give-and-go during the opening stages on Saturday morning, Lindholm was edging ever closer to the front. He’d won three rallies out of four already this year and beating Asunmaa to win number four would seal a first Finnish title.
One-point-five seconds. Three stages. Momentum on his side. The game is on.
An impact on the windscreen. The hood flipped open.
An unexpected upside of the Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo emerges: when the hood pins fail or aren’t fastened correctly, there’s a decent-sized gap under the opened hood from which to see the road ahead.
Unperturbed, Lindholm pushes on. Only 1.5s to catch. The game is still on.
Car in the air. Car rolling over. Car in the trees. Game over.
A shellshocked Lindholm couldn’t quite understand what happened. Why did the car roll? This line was in the notes on the first pass and it was no problem.
“To be honest I’m surprised because [the rock] didn’t look that big,” Lindholm recounts to DirtFish.
“I didn’t know it was there, so of course I was not even trying to avoid it, but it hit the sump guard and flipped the car around basically instantly. It was a strange feeling. I didn’t exactly know what happened at the point the car stopped between the trees, I was a bit surprised and had to see for myself what happened.”
That was it. The title was gone. Asunmaa was able to cruise (relatively speaking) to the finish and collect a third Finnish title. Was taking cuts on the second pass, after rocks and other detritus had potentially been pulled into perilous positions, worth the risk in hindsight?
Of course it was. It was the only way to win the title, and his rival had the upper hand, with Asunmaa’s home event landing right on the final round, which is worth 50% more points than normal events.
“We needed to push but we’d been pushing during the whole rally for sure,” said Lindholm.
“Let’s say, Friday night first stage, we were definitely too careful but on the other hand we didn’t know what Teemu’s pace was going to be.
“After that stage we were pushed for sure and the roads were basically Teemu’s home roads, so we definitely had to be on the limit. It’s a bit ironic that what happened wasn’t because we were pushing like a madman.
“I should have known there was a rock…” concludes Lindholm, almost chuckling at the irony of crashing out when he’d not been in win-or-bust mode during a win-or-bust scenario.
Lindholm could be considered the purist’s champion in Finland this year. On the road, Pohjanmaa was Asunmaa’s only win (he finished second to Kalle Rovanperä’s WRC-spec Toyota Yaris at the season-opening Arctic Rally), while Lindholm won the other three rallies.
The catch? Round one had a scoring coefficient of 1.3 and Asunmaa finished second every time Lindholm won. Lindholm would probably be within his rights to feel aggrieved at the last-round bonus points system.
“The first event is 1.3 because it’s double the length of the other ones,” he explains. “But fair is fair. We knew that from the start.
“It is important to keep the guys driving, to keep the cars in the championship until the last round. I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t say anything…” he chuckles nervously.
“Of course now I fear it’s not a good thing. But yeah, it’s to keep the interest up until the last rally and it definitely did that this year.”
Losing hurts. It always does. Two days have passed since that fateful stage when DirtFish catches up with Lindholm, but the slow cadence of his answers is different to past conversations. It still hurts.
But by no means is he alone. Grönholm knows all about that.
While his Fabia is run by Toni Gardemeister’s crack preparation firm TGS, the team name on the rear door is GRX. His father Sebastian Lindholm, an eight-time Finnish champion, is Grönholm’s cousin. Marcus was one of his first calls after the Fabia rolled over.
Marcus’s later WRC career was defined by moments like these. Crashing out early from Rally Australia 2006 when chasing an absent Sébastien Loeb, then careering into an Irish stone wall after binning it a round earlier in Japan killing his hopes again in 2007, means Marcus knows this pain well.
“We spoke quite soon after what had happened,” said Lindholm. “These are moments when it’s good to speak to another driver who’s really made it in this sport.
“Of course it’s tough but he knows himself, and what he told me is that there’s so many things that can happen, and this was just one rock in the wrong place at the wrong time, and just to carry on.”
Carry on he will. Pretty much straight away, too. He’s back at the wheel of a Fabia Rally2 evo; not the same one he crashed in Finland, admittedly, which needs a new set of panels after the roll. TGS already sent its other Evo on its way to Portugal for the ERC over a week ago.
“It’s quite a big switch from last weekend’s super-fast gravel roads to the twisty Tarmac patches here in Fafe. It’s a good way to put what happened last weekend behind me and hopefully we’ll have a good rally here. It’s probably the best medicine for what happened last weekend and looking forward to this rally.”
The odds of being usurped by a super-fast, super experienced local are also absent this weekend. Rally Fafe Montelongo is a brand-new event on the continental calendar. It’s not even been a round of the main Portuguese championship before, never mind appear on the European calendar.
“Driver-wise we should all be on the same level regarding the experience of the roads. It should definitely be a good thing. The field is tough, that’s for sure as well. But we are all writing new pacenotes which is always a big advantage when we’re a new driver in the series.”
Grönholm had already decided to call it quits at the end of 2007 before his title challenge that year fell apart. But, if all goes well, Lindholm is nearer the start of his rally career than the end of it. Will he come back and try to avenge his loss next year?
“I’m a bit tempted to be honest,” he replies. “I’m quite sure speed-wise we can do it, we just need to get the starts right and do our best and not mess up in the last rally. Everything is still open for next year, it depends.
“Obviously the Finnish championship is good but I’ve been there for a couple of years now. It’s a good championship and Teemu honestly is a lot to fight with. He really ramped up the game for this year, so in that sense it’s a good championship.
“But on the other hand I’d also like to be more in WRC and ERC, so we’ll see how to balance between those two.”
For now, there’s Fafe Montelongo to worry about. And for Lindholm, the game restarts from zero in 1.5 days’ time.