Winning your first round of the World Rally Championship is never a straightforward affair – just ask Thierry Neuville who, three days before his breakthrough victory, was sitting in a damaged Hyundai buried deep within a local vineyard.
But few went through the ringer quite as much as Markko Märtin did to get there – particularly on the notorious Acropolis Rally.
In 2002, the then 26-year-old led the rally from the off in his Ford Focus WRC ’02, holding a handsome 57.1-second lead over Ford team-mate Colin McRae into the second day.
But the Greek gods had other ideas. Märtin leaked over 3m30s on SS9 Elatia with a shredded tire, meaning sixth overall at the finish, 2m40.1s down on McRae, was a cruel and unjust reward for his efforts.
There were other near misses thereafter; namely on Rally GB that same year when he just lost out to Petter Solberg, in New Zealand when he suffered a broken engine while fighting for victory on the new Focus WRC ’03’s debut, and then next time out in Argentina, where Märtin retired from the lead when oil pressure halted him.
Heading to the Acropolis Rally in 2003, Märtin was determined to atone for the heartache of 12 months ago and the rotten luck that had beset his challenge on the previous two rounds.
“It’s quite clear [that] without the puncture [last year] we would have won the rally easily,” Märtin said in the lead-up to the event.
“We definitely have some unfinished business here so hopefully we can finish it this year.”
Several aspects seemed to be in place for Märtin to do just that. Starting seventh on the road because of early-season misfortunes, the Ford driver had a better start position than most of his rivals. And while the new car had shown some unreliability, its pace was already beginning to worry the other teams.
And then when the rally got underway, Citroën’s challenge quickly began to fall apart. Sébastien Loeb was out on the very first stage with an overheated engine while Colin McRae – the Greek winner over the past three seasons – struggled to restart his Xsara WRC on the way to SS2 after stopping to change tires, thus incurring a 50s penalty for arriving five minutes late.
What Märtin perhaps hadn’t accounted for was the pace of team-mate François Duval, who was quickest by 1.9s on the opening test, and arguably could’ve been further in front had he not dropped over 10s with an overshoot.
But natural order within the Ford ranks was soon restored, and Märtin stormed into the lead on the succeeding Stromi stage. However his advantage was only slight, standing at just 1.4s after SS4.
Precisely what Märtin didn’t need at this point then was for some unforeseen drama to threaten his victory bid once again. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what he and Michael Park got.
We went over a bump and it came open, and it blocked all the cooling inside the car. Oh ****, it's warmMarkko Märtin after his hood popped up mid-stage
Less than halfway through the Elatia – Zeli test, Märtin was tackling the stage as normal until suddenly, when the road dipped down into a compression, the hood of his Focus sprang up and covered the entire windshield.
With over 12 miles left to run, Märtin and Park elected to press on regardless – creating the iconic imagery of Märtin sliding his Focus along the rock-strewn tracks with the hood obscuring his vision like a blanket.
But actually it wasn’t Märtin’s line of sight that was the problem. It was the heat inside the cockpit.
“We just went through the bump and it came open, and it blocked all the cooling inside the car for 20 kilometers,” a bewildered and exhausted Märtin told the stage-end reporter. “Oh ****, it’s warm.”
After all the trauma Märtin had gone through, this was yet another cruel twist of fate. But somehow the handicap only cost him six seconds to stage winner Harri Rovanperä.
And miraculously, Märtin actually emerged with a larger lead than when he started SS5, with Duval putting his Ford off the road and into a ditch.
“We were having no problems whatsoever but somehow the bonnet [hood] pins were becoming loose and the bonnet just flew up,” reflected Park at service, watching the onboard footage back.
“It was a bit of a panic at first because we were not quite sure what to do, but it’s impossible to stop because we would lose 30 seconds straight away by trying to put it down.
“Obviously the visibility was really quite bad,” he added. “It was OK for me because I sit on the floor so I could see out the bottom [underneath the hood] but Markko sits a little bit higher, a little bit further forward which meant he really could only see 30 or 40 meters in front which meant then he had to listen to the pacenotes very, very carefully and just try and feed the car into where he thought the corner was.”
Despite Märtin’s epic and inspired driving, the pair weren’t out of the woods just yet. The crew back at service had a job to do to spring clean the engine, which had swallowed up dust like a vacuum cleaner due to being unexpectedly exposed to the elements.
This they managed, and Märtin and Park were fully back in the contest.
It was a contest that was beginning to thin in size. Peugeot’s Marcus Grönholm retired on the road section back to service on the opening day with a fuel pump problem, while Rovanperä’s 206 WRC lost second, third and fourth gears – leaving him with just first and fifth – which, you’d assume, should have significantly reduced the pressure on Märtin’s shoulders.
But the Estonian couldn’t miss a beat as he found himself driving with obscured vision once more. This time it was a wall of dust left in the wake of Rovanperä’s ailing Peugeot. In such moments rallies can very easily be thrown away.
“We were having a good stage but then Harri was so slow that we had a really bad dust problem, we nearly stopped twice just to see where the road was,” Märtin explained.
So although his closest rival had plummeted to eighth, Märtin had sacrificed 10.5s to Subaru’s Solberg – who was now menacingly just 6.7s behind overall. This really wasn’t coming easily for Ford’s number one – and the rally hadn’t even reached its halfway point at this stage!
But Märtin’s chips finally cashed in on the next stage. On the same test that Solberg had famously encountered steering problems the year before – prompting co-driver Phil Mills to tighten the wheel when on the move – his Impreza was sick again in 2003. This time it suffered transmission failure, which cost Solberg north of a minute.
Märtin’s lead advantage was suddenly in excess of 30s. He entered SS11 of 22 three minutes after Rovanperä instead of two in order to avoid being swallowed by the Peugoet’s dust, and with a clear view ahead Märtin’s Ford returned to the top of the timesheets.
It would’ve been easy for Märtin to relax and just manage his gap, but he preferred to keep his right boot welded to the throttle pedal. Was Märtin worried about the looming presence of Carlos Sainz and McRae behind, who between them had won eight editions of the Acropolis Rally?
“No, not at all,” he said with a smile. “I’m just trying to win my first, no matter how many they have won.”
McRae conceded that “Markko’s going very, very well at the moment” before cheekily adding: “I think maybe there’ll be more of a problem with the Ford than with Markko.”
As it transpired, the ex-Ford driver was almost right.
As the final day dawned, McRae’s old boss Malcolm Wilson admitted the pressure was mounting, particularly as he had been dusting down his crystal ball.
“We’ve been very close on the last two rallies,” he said, “and I must admit I made the prediction that this would be the first victory [for Märtin and the new Focus] so as you can imagine there’s quite a bit of pressure on me at the moment.”
Much like the WRC’s current swashbuckling Estonian, Ott Tänak, Märtin wasn’t interested in giving it the big talk or spilling any emotion as he prepared for the final six stages.
Asked what it would mean to win his first world rally, he responded: “Let’s find out after the rally’s finished, then I’ll see how I feel.”
Just to keep Märtin on his toes, he wouldn’t get the relaxing Sunday drive that he craved. The anti-roll bar in his Focus WRC ’03 had broken, compromising the car’s handling. Thankfully it wasn’t a major time consumer, but any thoughts that this rally was already won were completely extinguished.
“It’s too early,” Märtin rebuffed when asked again if he’d allowed himself to think ahead to a possible first victory.
“We just have to concentrate and drive the car through the last three stages. Hopefully everything just stays together and we can have a trouble-free run.”
All of the pain, heartache and hurdles Märtin had to overcome before reaching his milestone victory repaid him across that final loop. There were no problems, and Märtin won his very first world rally by 46s over Sainz with Solberg – who felt he lost second caught behind a slow McRae – placing third.
Not bad going for a driver who was competing flat out with a hood plastered across his windshield just a couple of days earlier.
“That’ll do pig, that’ll do,” grinned Park as the pair crossed the final finish-line. “We finished it, with no problems!” replied a gleeful Märtin.
So how did it feel, now that he’d finally achieved that first world rally win?
“It’s been a very tough weekend for me,” he admitted. “It started [as] quite an uphill struggle for us but then it got better and luckily our car’s been absolutely spot on, really, really reliable this weekend so no worries at all.
“We just managed to concentrate on driving, no other worries, so it’s been a great team effort to make that happen.”
For a driver that had smelt victory so many times but never quite tasted it, it was only fitting that this one required bags of effort to achieve.
The Acropolis had thrown everything it could at Märtin, but nothing – not even a loose hood pin – was going to get in his way from recording a truly memorable victory.
It was the first of five in a career that will sadly go down as a massive ‘what if’ due to the tragic death of co-driver Park on Rally GB, 2005.