Good as he was at driving rally cars, Marcus Grönholm was – and probably is – rubbish at lighting cigars.
Two decades ago I sat alongside the then Peugeot-driving Finn in Auckland’s Sky Tower and watched as he tried to light the fuse on a celebratory cigar – probably one of his charismatic team principal Corrado Provera’s.
The day had progressed into the evening and the evening was well on into the night, but these were different times. I happily accepted another glass of Peugeot’s champagne, safe in the knowledge that the office in London was still waking up to Sunday.
I’d got time for both the night and the morning after before I had to turn my hand to some coherent words. Back then I was all about print, cyberspace was somebody else’s business.
‘Bosse’ was on typically good form that Sunday night, but it was his team-mate Harri Rovanperä who set the pace.
This Sunday night, it’s the next generation of Rovanperä painting the City of Sails blue and white. There’s no shortage of significance and symbolism in what Kalle has achieved in relation to what Marcus did 20 years ago, with Harri a proud countryman, supporter and, this time, father.
It’s been a lean two decades for Finnish rally fans. Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala did all they could to carry the fight to the Frenchmen, but they found a brace of near unbeatable super Sébs in their way.
Loeb was just coming online in 2002. Back then it was still Peugeot vs Ford vs Subaru.
But actually, 2002 was all about a Finn and the lion on his bonnet of a car he made his own. Then team-mate Richard Burns needed a win in Auckland to keep his feint title hopes alive. Having seen off Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz with a sparkling 2001 Rally New Zealand win for Subaru, Burns continued where he left off. This time in a 206 WRC.
Te Akau North opened proceedings 20 years ago and RB was bang on the pace through the fast, but tricky, 20-miler. Six seconds faster than anybody, Burns and co-driver Robert Reid maintained a vice-like grip on the lead through the event’s first half.
Moving north of Auckland to the day two stages around Ruawai, Burns was 44 seconds up on Grönholm going into Paparoa Station.
Less than a mile before the finish, Burns slid a fraction wide on a flat-right-hander. The rear of the Peugeot slapped the bank and tipped them into a roll.
Burns’ appraisal was typically laconic.
“Look, Marcus was always going to win the championship, we know that,” he told me after the accident. “But I’m really p****d off about the win. This one was ours.”
It would be fair to say that Burns’ arrival into Peugeot that season had given Grönholm an added je ne sais quoi. There was talk of the Briton’s salary eclipsing that of the Finn – and certainly seeing somebody else’s 206 with #1 on the doors didn’t sit well with Marcus.
But as the season passed the mid-point, the pair had settled in together and Grönholm was only too well aware of the threat Burns posed – not least as he struggled to cling to Burnsie’s coat tails through Finland. Only a heavy landing at the yellow house would squash the Peugeot’s turbo pipe and drop him to second behind the relieved local.
“Richard was driving really nicely,” said Grönholm at the time. “Of course, we knew he could do this – he’s a world champion. I don’t know could we have caught him. I don’t know…”
Ultimately, he didn’t need to.
Sunday night and with two rallies to win – just like this year – Grönholm eased Burns aside to top the world.
Back to the new champ’s post-debrief drama.
“Where is Corrado?” smiled Grönholm as the stogie slowly came to light. “He knows how to do this.”
Will Rovanperä Jr spark up a Cuban? Maybe celebrate with a Montecristo?
Almost certainly not. In fact, certainly not. But a nation will celebrate tonight like it’s 2002 all over again.