By the time Marcus Grönholm took the start of the Monte Carlo Rally in 2000, Peugeot’s new factory driver was something of an elder statesman of the World Rally Championship at the age of 32.
The fact that it had taken so long for the promising but cash-strapped Finn to bag himself a top table drive at last surprised many. At the end of the season, few were surprised to see Grönholm and co-driver Timo Rautiainen atop the points standings, however, following four victories and a further three podiums.
The transformation from part-timer to eventual double world champion who amassed 30 rally successes, over 500 stage wins and a total of 615 points with three manufacturers and 18 consecutive seasons marked Grönholm as one of the WRC’s most iconic figures.
These days, the WRC is seen as a young person’s game whereby drivers are entering the topflight earlier and earlier. But as Grönholm – and perhaps the modern-day equivalent Craig Breen – have demonstrated, youth isn’t everything.
Indeed, when you think about it, M-Sport’s Breen has enjoyed more success at this stage of his own career than Grönholm had managed before his maiden outing with Corrado Provera’s Peugeot squad 22 years ago. Is that an omen for the 2022 WRC title fight? We’ll leave that debate for another day.
Let’s get back to the man they called the ‘Bosse’ or ‘Magic Marcus’ shall we?
It’s quite cliché to assume that Grönholm, like most Scandinavian drivers, grew up surrounded by motorsport. And although that was the case for a young Marcus, it was through motocross that he began his competition career and not via his illustrious rally driver father Ulf, nicknamed ‘Uffe’.
Despite Uffe’s exploits on four wheels, Grönholm Jr elected to ply his trade on two wheels, due to the fact that getting a motocross bike and competing in races was far more accessible than rallying, which had a minimum age limit for competition. On top of that, he’d have to wait until he was old enough to sit a driving test in any case.
I was sort of stuck in the Finnish championship and had no money to go anywhere else.Marcus Grönholm on his early rallying career
“When my father was rallying, I was of course interested in cars, but motocross was my main passion,” Grönholm told DirtFish.
“And in rallying, you couldn’t do it as easily as the boys and girls can do it today. Kids today, even after school, they can go rallying but back in the day it wasn’t possible for me.
“I could [only] start at 19 years old, so I switched to rally then.
“But for me, it took quite a long time for me to come up [the ladder] because I was sort of stuck in the Finnish championship and had no money to go anywhere else.”
We’ll get back to the issue of money later, but as Grönholm continued in the motocross world, things quickly took a turn for the worse.
Shortly after midnight on the morning of February 26 1981, Ulf crashed his Fiat Abarth 131 into a snowplough while conducting a pre-event practice run on public roads ahead of the Hankiralli and was killed alongside co-driver Bob Rehnström.
Many would have forgiven Grönholm, a 13-year-old at the time, had he decided to call time on his own motorsport activities. Instead, rallying beckoned for Marcus…eventually.
It’d be easy to suggest that the attraction to four wheels came from his father’s prowess in the WRC but as Marcus recounted to rallying journalist Jeremy Hart, it was actually through his cousin – and fellow WRC driver – Sebastian Lindholm that he discovered the passion for rallying.
“My first rally was as a co-driver to him in 1986,” he said in 2003. “But I realized that I wanted to be in the other seat. The one with the steering wheel.
“Once I started driving, I knew I had made the right decision.”
By 1987 Grönholm was in the driving seat having passed his road test, and lined up for his maiden rally in the Finnish championship.
A serious knee injury sustained while competing in motocross put paid to any aspirations he had of continuing his two-wheeled adventures, which is where his initial rallying experience came about.
But for a kid with no money, just how did Grönholm find his first rally car?
“The injury was really bad, I must say,” he explained. “When you competed, you needed insurance before you raced, and I had it.
Maybe I had a bit too much sisu in rallying because I wanted to win too much all the timeMarcus Grönholm
“And the doctor said to me that they would pay me 15,000 Finnish marks because the injury could have affected how I lived.
“I got that money and bought my first rally car, the Escort with the money! So, it started with an accident but, I dunno, every cloud, I found the good in the bad situation.
“That’s how it all started: in 1987, I did my first rally! It was a junior class national rally in Finland, and I was driving an old, old, Ford Escort, a 1.3-liter Mk1 Escort.
“The rally was not so far away from my home, maybe 30km [18.6 miles] but it was a small, small rally and it went quite well because I won my class, the 1.3-liter and third overall in the junior class, so it was quite a good start I would say.”
From then on, it was a case of no looking back for Grönholm who made his WRC debut just two years later on Rally Finland, driving a Lancia Delta Integrale and finishing 23rd. In the space of three years, Grönholm had vaulted from a one-off appearance in the co-driver’s seat to a fully-fledged entry on his home event of the world championship, showing a fair amount of promise in doing so.
Some drivers have an innate ability to be fast straight out of the blocks and the Scandinavians, in particular, have honed this trait over decades. And although Grönholm had left motocross behind him by the time he got himself into a rally car for the first time, the two-time world champion was able to take some experience from the discipline with him onto the special stages.
“There were some things I could take from motocross into rallying which helped me, like understanding the grip on the loose, the feeling in your back and of course your a**!
“Knowing where the grip is and when to slide also, I found in motocross, but of course they are two completely different types of racing but the competition and the racing I appreciated a lot and learned from.
“I got a lot of sisu [translated to stoic determination and bravery] from there, but maybe I had a bit too much sisu in rallying because I wanted to win too much all the time, and maybe I destroyed two titles with Ford because of that!”
After a decade of competing in rallying, the Grönholm name had quickly became a regular appearance on entry lists, but a full season campaign evaded Marcus for almost as long. Budget issues were always the stumbling block for Grönholm, who struggled to find the right car and the right team, at the right time.
He was therefore left with the reputation as a bit-player, a part-timer – albeit a fast one – who was more than likely going to join the long list of talented drivers never to get a proper shot at the title.
That all changed, however, by the end of the 90s. A number of hugely impressive showings on Rally Finland turned heads, but it wasn’t until the 1998 edition that teams really started to pay attention to the latest flying Finn.
“We were a privateer operation all the way to the world championship, but I got a deal with the Toyota Team Europe which was run by Ove Andersson at that time, so I had a factory car on Rally Finland a couple of times,” Grönholm.
“And that was my only chance to show what I could do on the world stage every year. And then, finally, in 1998, I did quite well on Rally Finland and that got the attention of a few people in the service park.
“It wasn’t easy, I was leading the rally in 1997 with a factory car, a new one, but still it wasn’t enough to get me anything. And then the following year, again in a factory Corolla, I set a lot of fastest stage times that year. That was the key, the last day I was fastest six times. Before then, it was always ‘yeah, yeah, we will see [from teams]’ but after the stage wins, it was ‘boom!’, a lot of interest.
“And it was really kind of in the last minute of my career, because I was trying to get a proper drive, but I never had the budget, so it was always one-off rallies but never a full-time drive.”
It’s almost incredible to think that, until his 30s, Grönholm had been a driver almost entirely overlooked. And while some would point to the dominance and sheer engineering genius of the factory Peugeot team in the early 2000s as to why he subsequently became a double world champion, Grönholm’s raw speed on the stages was undeniable.
Perhaps the most important rally of Grönholm’s career came right at the start of his tenure with Provera’s outfit. Victory on Rally Sweden, Grönholm’s second home event given he was born in the Swedish speaking Ingå region of Finland, was almost as crucial a result as his title winning moments on Rally GB that year or Rally Australia in 2002.
“Finally, I was happy to get a contract for the first time,” Grönholm said. “In 2000, my first with Peugeot, I had so many new rallies to discover. Sweden was my first win and that was important for me because I was not promised the full season in 2000.
“It was planned that maybe the asphalt drivers would do those rounds and the team had good gravel drivers as well, so it was going to be split. But finally, they put me on all the rallies after Sweden so that was good.
“I have never looked back on what might have happened if I didn’t win in Sweden, but it was for sure an important rally to win, not just for the rest of the season but for the championship hopes too. It was an amazing feeling to get the first win because I suddenly knew I could do it and then it was so much easier after that to win more.”
Quite what Grönholm’s WRC record might look like now if he had been resigned to another partial season is one of those sliding door moments, isn’t it? Would the team’s designated gravel expert François Delecour have picked up the title in Grönholm’s place? Or perhaps another driver altogether?
Alas, we’ll never know, and possibly that’s for the best, as the championship may well have been deprived of one of the most charismatic figureheads of the early 2000s WRC.