It is just possible that Marcus Grönholm hasn’t fully grasped the concept of a Motor Sport lunch. The 2019 Wales Rally GB is just beginning to get into its stride when we convene in Llandudno and the Finn arrives clutching a half-eaten chicken sandwich, given to him by Colin McRae’s former co-driver Nicky Grist.
“He didn’t realise I had meetings and interviews,” Grönholm says, “and thought I’d be going out with him to watch some of the stages, so he made me a packed lunch…”
The Finn’s schedule is too tight to permit a culinary tour of suburban North Wales, but his former employer M-Sport has kindly agreed to provide us with a table in the Ford hospitality area adjacent to the Rally GB service park, where Marcus selects a small salad, gnocchi in cheese sauce and a glass of orange juice, followed by what he estimates to be his 11th coffee of the day.
“The fact his own father died at the wheel wasn’t a deterrent”
With the lunch protocol firmly established, we settle down to discuss one of the more unusual rallying careers of recent times, that of a driver who did not land a works contract until he was already into his 30s, and then went on to win the World Rally Championship title at his very first attempt… even though he hadn’t been pencilled in for a full programme of events. It’s quite a story, and quite a turnaround from when Grönholm nearly quit.
It was no surprise that Grönholm should develop an early taste for motor sport. Born in Kauniainen, a town in southern Finland where his family was among about 40 per cent of the local population to adopt Swedish as their mother tongue, his interest in rallying was triggered by his father Ulf, who in 1977 and 1978 won domestic championship titles at the wheel of Opel Kadett GT/Es.
“Initially,” he says, “I had no particular ambition to go rallying because my first real love was motocross. I started competing when I was about 10 and continued for several years, until I destroyed my knee – actually both my knees. The last accident I had, aged 17, was so bad that I simply had to stop. I had reached quite a good level in Finland and made one world championship start, also on home soil, but then, bang… finito! At the same time my cousin Sebastian Lindholm was competing in rallies and would become Finnish champion [eight titles between 1990 and 2006]. I was following his progress and it was his influence that made me think about having a go at that sport instead.”
The fact his father died at the wheel was not, he says, a deterrent. Grönholm Sr was killed while practising for the 1981 Hankiralli, an event he had won the previous season in his Fiat 131 Abarth. “That didn’t put me off,” he says. “My mother was perhaps not all that happy, but if I wanted to do it then she wasn’t really against it. My father’s accident didn’t happen on a rally but while he was testing on an open road, which was what everybody did at that time. The fact I wouldn’t be involved in anything like that maybe made it easier for her – and once I’d started I soon realised there would be no going back. I didn’t have a driving licence when I had to give up motocross, but I passed my test when I was 19 and then started competing at a really low level, in the junior rally classes, before moving up step by step.”
His natural aptitude was swiftly apparent and in his third full season, 1989, he made an encouraging if somewhat unobtrusive start to his WRC career, taking his Group N Lancia Delta Integrale to 23rd overall and fifth in class on the 1000 Lakes Rally. Two years later he would claim his first class title in the Finnish championship, at the wheel of a GpN Toyota Celica GT-4. Sticking with Toyota throughout the decade, he became outright Finnish champion for the first of four times in 1994 as the Grönholm-Lindholm family axis dominated the sport domestically.
“I contested the national championship for year after year,” he says, “but sometimes I was able to venture farther afield – like in 1994, when I did the Scottish Rally and was fighting for victory with [future employer] Malcolm Wilson. I think I finished second or third in the end [he was third], but it felt as though I did many, many years in Finland – there were a few WRC outings, but I never really had the budget to do more. But I was given a few opportunities on the 1000 Lakes, when Toyota loaned me a factory car [he was second in 1995, when it wasn’t a WRC round, and fourth in 1996], but I was always fighting for support. I got some good results – fourth in Argentina with my own car in 1997, for instance – but nobody really seemed interested in taking me on.
“Late in 1996 I’d decided to give rallying a real go and leased our family’s farm to another cousin – Sebastian Lindholm’s brother, who runs it to this day. In my mind I was going to give myself two years to make it to the top – and if I hadn’t done that by the end of 1998, I planned to abandon the attempt. That was my thinking. I’d probably have gone back to the farm and concentrated purely on rallying in Finland, but 1998 proved to be my breakthrough season, when it began to seem as though something might finally happen for me.”
The trigger was the Rally Finland [né 1000 Lakes]. He finished only seventh, but a string of fastest stage times captured the wider world’s attention. “Suddenly I had about four factory teams offering me drives for the following season,” he says. “It was strange that it happened like that, so much interest and all so sudden.” Already past his 30th birthday, he eventually decided to sign a deal with championship returnee Peugeot, which was developing its new 206 WRC for 1999.
“I think my first reaction was relief,” he says. “I was happy to have a contract that meant I no longer had to find money to compete – I was at last able to focus purely on driving and somebody was paying me to do it. Wow. That was a first for me. Previously I’d relied on help from local sponsors, Toyota Finland and also Toyota Team Europe, which helped me with the car and parts, but in the back of my mind I always knew that if I crashed my season might be finished. After lengthy contemplation, I felt Peugeot was the best option because it would allow me to build up to the challenge gradually.
“Loeb was my toughest rival. He was so consistent, like a clock”
“It was the first season for the 206 WRC and Peugeot planned lots of testing and a limited WRC programme – just five events for me – so it was definitely the best option. I didn’t have to be ready to attack from the Monte Carlo onwards, but had a chance to develop my speed while testing, which was very beneficial.”
He scored his first win for Peugeot on the Martini Mänttä-ralli, a round of the Finnish championship, and recorded his best WRC results in Finland and Australia, where he was fourth and fifth respectively. It was a solid start, but offered little clue about what lay ahead for him.
He retired from the 2000 season-opener in Monte Carlo, but then scored his first outright WRC victory in Sweden.
“I well remember how good that felt,” he says, “and it was on one of my favourite events, too. When you win for the first time, then you know you can do it and that makes everything much easier afterwards. From that moment on, I was in the fight. Initially Peugeot hadn’t promised me a full season. I was due to contest perhaps 10 events – none of the asphalt rallies, for instance – because I had little prior experience, but then they realised, ‘Hey, this guy might actually win the championship’ so I ended up taking part in all 14 rounds.”
He finished all but four events, taking further victories in Finland, New Zealand and Australia – plus second places in Portugal, Argentina and Britain – to beat Subaru rival Richard Burns, his future Peugeot team-mate, by five points.
The biggest hurdle, he says, was acclimatising to the unfamiliarity of asphalt. “I really didn’t have much experience,”he says. “I’d contested the 1989 Rallye Deutschland in a Delta, and Spain with my own Corolla in 1998, but that was about it. I’d done absolutely no asphalt testing before I joined Peugeot, but fortunately my team-mates at that time were the best possible teachers, François Delecour and Gilles Panizzi. Both were super-quick and that was good because I could make direct comparisons. I remember one test in Corsica when I pushed like hell and actually managed to go faster than they had, which led to a congratulatory evening phone call from [team boss] Jean-Pierre Nicolas. I told him it didn’t matter, because it was only a test, but from that moment I knew I could potentially match them, though in rallies I always found that difficult. Sometimes, though, I was not too far away. You have to remember that I never won on asphalt. Yes, I won Monte Carlo, but I don’t consider that a proper, proper asphalt rally because of all the snow and ice. I was 3.6sec away from winning in Germany in 2003, behind Sébastien Loeb, and I finished second in Spain and Corsica, but no wins. And I was never truly comfortable on wet asphalt, either, when you had to feel for the grip level changing while pushing like hell – and sometimes on slick tyres… I didn’t really enjoy that very much.”
“I wanted to walk away when I was still on top of my game”
He scored three wins in the second half of the following season, but a run of poor reliability had already effectively eliminated him from title contention. “I’ve never really understood why that happened,” he says, “because it was usually different things [engine failure, a suspension breakage, fading fuel pressure and a broken water pump were among the things that sidelined him]. With hindsight the 2002 season actually felt quite easy. I won the title by a big margin, the car was reliable and I felt on good form. Before any of the gravel rallies, it wasn’t that I knew I could win if we had no problems, it was more that I knew I would win.”
He took five victories during the campaign’s course – and had a sixth taken away in Argentina, for receiving outside assistance from his team when his car refused to start on Sunday morning. He topped off the year by claiming the Race of Champions crown in Gran Canaria, beating NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson en route to a final in which he defeated future WRC nemesis Sébastien Loeb.
Grönholm would remain with Peugeot until the marque’s WRC engagement concluded at the end of 2005. He added six more WRC successes to his CV in that time, but the irrepressible Loeb was now into his stride and, from 2004, was firmly on his way to an unprecedented run of nine straight WRC titles.
“Séb was absolutely my toughest rival,” Grönholm says. “Early on I faced Tommi Mäkinen, Colin McRae and Richard Burns, but Colin could be a little up and down, Richard was very fast but not consistently super-quick and I came up against Tommi towards the end of his reign. I broke his run of titles, after he’d taken four on the trot, and I’m not sure he was quite so sharp in the seasons that followed. But Séb was always just so tough. He was incredibly consistent, committed very few errors, always seemed to make the correct tyre choices, his car almost always ran perfectly and he was like a clock – bang, quick time, bang, quick time, bang, quick time…”
Following Peugeot’s withdrawal Grönholm had a number of offers from other teams – including one from Citroën. “A contract was on the table, ready to sign,” he says, “but then I started to hesitate. Sébastien was well established there and I thought it might not be good to be fighting with him in the same team. Malcolm Wilson was also talking to me about driving an M-Sport Ford Focus, but at the time he didn’t have the budget in place – although he seemed to find one quite quickly when he learned I had a serious offer from Citroën! I had a good two years with him and could have won the championship both seasons, had I not f***ed up. Loeb beat me by one point in 2006 and four in 2007.”
In the first of those seasons the Frenchman won eight of the first 12 rallies, but then broke an arm in a mountain-bike accident before Turkey, forcing him to miss the final four events. Grönholm won three of those, but… “I ought to have taken things more easily in Australia,” he says. “I went off on the very first stage and spent 10 minutes in a ditch, then had to fight back to finish fifth when I should probably have been third, which would have been enough to secure the title. In 2007 I was leading Sébastien by a few points, then slipped up in Japan and Ireland, where I was first car on the road and made a mistake in very damp, slippery conditions. I hit a wall and that was that.”
Much as he had craved a third title, he decided to call time on his professional career at the end of that year. “It felt like completely the right decision at that point,” he says. “I no longer wanted to travel all the time, because I had three children but was almost never at home to see them. I’d started developing other business interests, too, but the main thing was that I was always fighting with Séb and no longer wanted to have that stress all the time – one second here, half a second there… it was non-stop. I thought I’d win the title in 2007 and bow out as a champion, but f***ing hell, no. It was also a factor that I wanted to retire at a time when I knew I was still capable of challenging for the title – I wanted to stop on my own terms, not have Malcolm coming up to me and telling me he wouldn’t be offering me a new contract. He had proposed a nice deal for 2008, but I really wanted to walk away when I was still at the top of my game.”
Not that there weren’t opportunities to resume his rallying career…
“After a year away I did begin to wonder whether I should do something,” he says. “In 2008 I took part in my first rallycross, in Sweden, which was really good fun and I won [driving a Fiesta 4×4, he beat serial champion Kenneth Hansen into second place]. It was the European championship then, the equivalent of what is now World RX, so the standard was pretty good. That year Prodrive also approached me about coming back to the WRC with Subaru. I’d made up my mind that I was going to accept, but then Subaru pulled the plug on its factory team. I did Portugal with a Prodrive Subaru in 2009, though. That was OK, because I was quick until I went off on the second day. I thought I could compete with Séb and was only a few seconds behind him, so I pushed a bit harder and… bosh.
“Dakar never appealed. It seems too easy to hurt yourself”
“I made a one-off appearance for M-Sport in Sweden in 2010, then came close to a return with Prodrive again when the Mini project began ahead of the 2011 season. I was involved early on, testing the car in Portugal, and they offered me the chance to be part of the programme, but at that stage I said to myself, ‘Hey, come on, you’ve retired. Why would you want to go back?’ So I declined.”
That wasn’t quite the end of the tale, though, for in 2019 – to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his first WRC start – Grönholm accepted Toyota’s offer of a Yaris drive in Sweden, with his world title-winning co-driver Timo Rautiainen alongside. “It’s not easy to come back after so long away,” he says. “The Yaris was perfect for the event and things went OK during testing, when my pace was comparable with the other drivers. In terms of delivering on the event, however, I just couldn’t do it as I had before, which caused frustration and I started to make mistakes, finishing up in snow banks and so on.” He finished the event, albeit in 37th place. So was that definitely his WRC swansong? He ponders awhile before grinning broadly. “Yes,” he says, “it was.”
The sport changed significantly during Grönholm’s time, from an era when the calendar embraced events such as the Safari Rally – and Britain’s round of the WRC covered rather more than just Oulton Park and a slice of a western principality – to the current, more compact format with repeat stage cycles. “It wasn’t necessarily better back then,” he says, “but they were just different days. When I look back, I now think it’s nice that I did the Safari, but perhaps at the time I didn’t enjoy it so much. You had to be so fast on the road sections, absolutely incredible – but also very difficult. My second year there  was a bit of an adventure. I went off slightly on a bridge – there was no big damage to the car, but the steering had broken. I tried to repair it in the twilight, but couldn’t and so the team helicopter came to pick us up. It was dark, raining and the pilot was concerned because he couldn’t really see properly. That scared me…”
Apart from dabbling with rallycross – as well as a few other European events, he participated occasionally in the US-based Global RX series (“I wasn’t going to commit to a full programme. I just wanted to do selected events, for fun. I didn’t want to have to tell my wife that I was going to be away again for lengthy periods of time…”) – Grönholm tackled Pikes Peak in 2009at the wheel of an 800bhp Ford Fiesta, a modified rallycross car. His hopes of covering the 12.4 miles in less than 10 minutes were stymied by a loss of power on the upper part of the ascent. “It was still partly a loose-surface course then,” he says, “so it was a nice experience and good to be able to say that I’ve done it, but it was difficult with no testing and my time was s**t.” Although he was more than a minute shy of winner Nobuhiro Tajima’s Suzuki SX4, he was still second overall.
Did cross-country rallies such as Dakar hold no appeal?
“Not really,” he says. “I wasn’t all that interested. I tested a BMW once in Morocco, but it seemed a bit dangerous to me, not knowing when the dunes were coming and flying here and there, landing in big holes. It would be a bit too easy to hurt yourself.”
More so than in motocross?
“OK, maybe not…”
Is there anything he wishes he could have done, had the opportunity arisen?
“I don’t think so,” he says. “OK, I would like to have stopped as a champion, but I won a lot of rallies [he finished 100 of the 153 WRC events he started, with 30 wins] and I had a very nice time, so I’ve no complaints.”
Born: 5/2/68, Kauniainen, Finland
1978 motocross debut
1987 starts rallying
1989 WRC debut, 1000 Lakes Rally
1991 Finnish GpN champion
1994 & 1996-98 Finnish rally champion
1999 WRC, limited programme with Peugeot
2000 World Rally champion
2001 WRC, 4th
2002 World Rally champion; Race of Champions winner, Gran Canaria
2003 WRC, 6th
2004 WRC, 5th
2005 WRC, 3rd
2006 Switches to M-Sport Ford in WRC, 2nd
2007 WRC, 2nd; announces retirement as a full-time professional
2008 wins Euro RX event in Sweden
2009 Pikes Peak, 2nd
2011 declines chance of return to WRC with Mini
2019 makes what he insists will be his final WRC start with Toyota, in Sweden
A varied life away from the wheel
Marcus Grönholm has spread his talents far and wide, from running teams to building shopping centres
For most of his ‘retirement’, Marcus Grönholm has blended several motor sport-associated activities – finding sponsors, organising high-speed ‘taxi’ rides, running a World RX team, driver management – with an array of commercial interests.
“More than 10 years ago I organised construction of a new shopping centre in our local community,” he says, “and we are now developing the surrounding area with apartments and so on. We are in a small town, close to the sea, but I’m hoping our work will help us to attract more tourists.”
His son Niclas is one of the drivers representing GRX, Grönholm’s WRX team, which runs two or sometimes three Hyundai i20s. “I think I am OK now as a ‘racing dad’,” he says. “I don’t want to interfere too much and just let him get on with it. He’s quick enough, but we need to see where the championship is going. WRX has been through a bit of a lean period recently, but the races are still good to watch.”
He is also managing Hyundai WRC2 driver Jari Huttunen and Sebastian Lindholm’s son Emil, who is contesting the Finnish Rally Championship and selected WRC events in a VW Polo. “It keeps me busy,” he says. “I am still able to follow what’s happening in the WRC, but I don’t have time to attend many events – this is only my third this year… and I was probably in Sweden only because I was taking part.”
So which aspect does he find more straightforward, being a businessman or..? He cuts in: “Being a rally driver,” he says. “Much easier, definitely.”