Marcus Grönholm’s not really a stand-on-the-roof kind of chap. Nor is he a fist-pumper.
One Sunday in Hamilton 13 years ago, he was both. And with good reason. The Finn completed 219 competitive miles of New Zealand driving 0.3 seconds faster than Sébastien Loeb.
That’s why he stood on the roof of his Ford Focus RS WRC07. And pumped both fists.
Winning Rally New Zealand was nothing new for Grönholm. He’d done it four times already. But that win in 2007 was special for a whole host of reasons. Not only was it – at the time – the closest victory in the history of the WRC, but it was a win that opened his lead over Loeb to 10 points at the top of the table.
Wheels up from Auckland airport the next day, Grönholm settled back into his seat very much in charge of a title race which could have netted him a third crown and ended Loeb’s run on three successive titles (spoiler alert: He didn’t).
Loeb started the event on the back foot, having missed New Zealand 12 months ago due to a broken shoulder he suffered falling from his bike. Equally, Grönholm wasn’t on top form, struggling to shake off a virus which had manifested itself through the recce.
Friday morning’s stages to the west of the event’s base in Mystery Creek were the perfect cure for the two-time champion. He thundered through the first two tests to build a 14-second lead.
Loeb was far from impressed.
“I have no precision from the car at all,” he said. “I’m fighting like hell all the time.”
Citroën sourced a new set-up for the C4 WRC, helping Loeb pull back a handful of tenths in each of the re-run stages.
Saturday’s first three stages presented a conundrum. The middle test, Possum, was muddy enough to warrant the softer BF Goodrich option, but the two stages either side were drier. And drying. But how much would they dry?
Leader Grönholm went soft and conserved his boots on the first stage of the loop, shipping three seconds to Loeb. He pushed like mad on the middle one, taking five seconds back, then did all he could in Franklin, the 20-miler which completed the morning’s meaningful mileage. He dropped 11s to Loeb.
Worse still, Grönholm lost the lead to Loeb in the first of two Te Akau stages on Saturday afternoon. The Finn’s mood was dark on Saturday night.
“Always he is coming and taking the lead. I don’t want that this time…” said Grönholm.
The final day was based in Raglan, with the mainstay of the action included in two runs at Whaanga Coast. With the first loop done, Loeb led by 2.9s. Standing watching the weather coming in from the Tasman, the atmosphere around the remote service zone was electric. Who would do what? Grönholm gambled on the rain and went with softs.
This time, he was on the money. Fastest on all three stages, he emerged from Whaanga Coast 0.7s to the good.
“We came from that stage and I was so happy,” said Grönholm. “We were back to the highway to drive to service and I was thinking I had won. Then Timo [Rautiainen] reminded me about the superspecial.
“’S***!’ I said, ‘I forgot about this one.’ I told Timo it would be OK. We would be sensible.”
0.7s, he reckoned, would be enough.
“It was a good fight, but to lose [by] this much time is s***.”Sébastien Loeb
When he fluffed two corners, he wasn’t sure. But when Loeb crossed the line just 0.4s faster he was not only sure. He was on the roof. Dancing. Fist pumping.
“Incredible, incredible fight. Hey, to win with this time was amazing. Fantastic rally,” said the ecstatic Grönholm.
The only person who wasn’t quite so sure was Loeb.
“It was a good fight, but to lose [by] this much time is s***,” was his verdict.
While Grönholm won the battle, the season-long war went the direction of Loeb as he scored his fourth straight championship win.