The story of Grönholm’s “rubbish” 2001 WRC title defense

While four of his rivals duked it out for the title, the reigning champion was denied a shot at success

2001 Acropolis Rallyworld wide copyright: McKlein

The 2001 World Rally Championship season is regarded by many as one of the most competitive in the modern era, if not since its inception in 1973. Heading into the final round on Rally GB, four drivers stood a chance of picking up the crown with just nine points separating Ford’s Colin McRae, four-time champion Tommi Mäkinen, Richard Burns of Subaru and McRae’ team-mate Carlos Sainz.

One driver not in contention for glory on the soggy, arduous roads of the Welsh countryside in mid-November that year was the defending champion, Marcus Grönholm, despite Peugeot’s leader sitting on one win less than Mäkinen and McRae, one more than Burns and two more than Sainz.

But, unlike Burns and Sainz, Grönholm – and the entire Peugeot effort – lacked the consistency and, crucially, reliability required to mount a serious title assault. Indeed, for a reigning champion on the crest of a wave with easily the quickest car in the service park, the glorious title defense was all but smashed to smithereens after just five rallies.

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“For me, I became a factory driver at quite an old age, compared to the others at that time, so I was so happy to get the chance with Peugeot and to win the first title [in 2000],” Grönholm tells DirtFish.

“That gave me the confidence to know that I can do it and the goal was of course to try and repeat it the following year.

“But the season was rubbish, suddenly we had so many problems with the car; the first two rallies we were out almost immediately with water pump issues, and then engine issues. I don’t know why this was, but it was such a difficult start to the season.”

While mechanical issues curtailed his running on the Monte and in Sweden – both on the opening day – and a fuel pressure problem stopped him in Cyprus, accidents in Spain and Argentina were a clear sign that the pressure was on.

“From my side, I had no idea why we were having all of these mechanical problems, the car itself was the same as in 2000, and in 2000 we didn’t have any problems,” Grönholm explains.

“And always on my car, that was the most frustrating and the atmosphere in the team was not so good at that time, I can tell you.”

If you flick through the pages of that season’s Rallycourse, you’ll surely spot a trend among the traditional top 10 drivers listing. Whether it be Burns, McRae, Mäkinen, Sainz or Grönholm, each had their ups and downs.

Michael Lizin describes Grönholm’s year as “weird”, and it’s easy to see why. Ordinarily, seven retirements from the first eight events would surely mean one thing and one thing only: title over and refocus on next year and have fun for the remainder of what had been an excruciatingly tough campaign.

I was a little bit fed up with the beginning of the year, but we fought back in the second half of the season Marcus Grönholm

“We were such a long way back in the points, so for me it was over, I couldn’t win the title,” Grönholm admits.

“For sure, we kept on pushing and I just wanted to go out and win rallies, not thinking about the championship because, realistically, it was not possible.

“I was a little bit fed up with the beginning of the year, but we fought back in the second half of the season, starting with Finland which was a good win.”

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If it needed stressing any more, this was no ordinary WRC season and suddenly the Peugeot stalwart had an outside shot at the most unlikely of titles as everybody else’s form ebbed and flowed.

Mitsubishi’s Mäkinen and Ford’s McRae were the leading contenders for the title at this stage of the season. The latter had won three rallies on the bounce in Argentina, Cyprus and Greece following an equally poor start to the campaign, while Mäkinen took his second win of the year on the Safari.

Both had a commanding points advantage over Grönholm, who languished in the standings with just four points from his third place in Portugal to show for his supposed title defense.

With McRae admitting that his victory chance in Finland stood at precisely zero “unless the local drivers make mistakes”, Grönholm finally profited from the bad luck of others as Mäkinen committed the ultimate sin by crashing out a mere two miles into the rally.

With Mäkinen out, Grönholm stormed to victory, winning six of the 21 stages and beating eventual champion Burns by 25s and McRae by a further eight.

“Before Finland, my attitude was that I just wanted to win rallies at this point. If I couldn’t win the title, I wanted to win rallies and that was my only target,” Grönholm says.

“[Although] I won Finland, at no point did I think I would be able to fight for the title, it was too far away for me, but we fought back, and it could have happened. In the end, we were not so far away but the title was lost because of the mechanical problems at the start of the year.”

2001 Safari Rallyworld wide copyright: McKlein

It’s scarcely believable to think that Grönholm had retired from well over the majority of rallies up until Finland and was yet just seven points behind Burns as the WRC fraternity headed down under to New Zealand, the scene of Burns’ only success of the season – and sadly his last WRC triumph.

Grönholm could well have made even more gains on the top of the table had his Peugeot team managed the controversial road order tactical game better than rivals Subaru.

Far from today’s era where even split times in the car are not permitted, New Zealand was, dare we say, dogged by calculations and counter-calculations – relayed by the F1-style pit-boards in the middle of stages! – to ensure the crews lost enough time and positions before the road order was reshuffled for the following day.

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I don’t want to say anything bad about the team, but they did a wrong calculation Marcus Grönholm

Unfortunately for Peugeot, it got its math wrong. With swathes of crews slowing down to comical pace before the flying finish, Grönholm and co-driver Timo Rautiainen were left fuming in their 206 WRC after being given the wrong target time by their on-stage helpers. Grönholm dropped a mere 40s – instead of the planned 1m40s – and just one place instead of several.

The rally was almost immediately gone, with a dejected Grönholm telling TV crews post-stage: “I don’t want to say anything bad about the team, but they did a wrong calculation.

“I realized too late, and Timo also realized but we couldn’t do anything because we had already passed the yellow signs [of the finish control] and it was too late.”

Grönholm went on to finish fifth, scoring just two points to Burns’ 10 for victory despite the Peugeot demonstrating it had been the fastest car on the opening day.

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The New Zealand disappointment didn’t ruin Grönholm’s title bid but the victory he could have achieved proved even more costly as he joined Burns, McRae and Mäkinen on the list of retirements on the next event in Sanremo, before also failing to reach the finish in Corsica – where Mäkinen suffered his horrific crash.

Proof, if any further was needed, that Grönholm had the potential to be part of the now infamous four-way shootout at the final round were the victories in Australia and Rally GB, leaving more than a few to ponder just what might have been.

Ultimately though, it proved to be a mere blip as Grönholm would destroy the opposition in 2002 as Burns joined him at Peugeot and Mäkinen migrated to Subaru.


Words:Stephen Brunsdon