MARCUS Gronholm has an ego inversely in proportion to his towering frame. The fact that there is barely room for the 2002 world rally champion, let alone a swollen head, in the cramped cabin of his Peugeot 206 might have something to do with it.
The truth, though, is that rallying’s megastar does not have an egotistical bone in his 6ft 3in body. He is just happy to be alive - literally. Gronholm’s father, Ulf, was killed in a rally-testing accident when Marcus was just 13 years old. It would have been enough to send many Finnish boys running to the relative safety of cross-country skiing or even ice-hockey.
"It was so long ago that, to be honest, much of the pain has gone," says Gronholm. "And it wasn’t my father who got me into rallying anyway, it was my cousin Sebastian Lindholm. My first rally was as a co-driver to him in 1986. But I realised 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."
Though Gronholm quickly proved his speed in domestic events, his international career suffered initially because of the success of other rallying Finns. Juha Kankkunen, then Tommi Makinen seemed to have the sport sewn up, and 14 years Gronholm rallied before he got his big break.
In 1998, driving an old Toyota, he won every stage on the last day of Finland’s 1000 Lakes Rally; that he did so against factory drivers was all the more impressive.
Within hours, Gronholm received four offers of employment: from Ford, Subaru, the works Toyota team and Peugeot. Subaru and Toyota were dominant, but Gronholm picked Peugeot. "You know what, I do not know why, except I had the best feeling about the Peugeot team and the management," he shrugs. "Other teams, Ford especially, kept ringing and ringing but I had made up my mind. But there were moments when I wondered if it was the right one."
History confirms the decision. In the four years that he has served Peugeot, he has won 12 rallies - an average of one every four events. His first victory came in Sweden in February 2000, and by the end of that year he was champion.
"Winning in 2000 was incredible," he exclaims in perfect English, which is tinged with the lumpiness of Finnish and the sing-song of mother tongue Swedish. "It was my first full season, and I had not even done four events! But I was so drained after 2000, I never really got it together in 2001."
In 2002, he was back to form: five wins, three seconds, a third and only one retirement from 14 starts was the Peugeot man’s score en route to his second title. "I was really motivated because I had a bad year last year and I had a new team-mate, the reigning world champion Richard Burns. I wanted more than anything to beat him." He grins.
Gronholm’s English might be good, but not expressive enough to use words such as annihilate or crucify. Or maybe he is just too generous. Because last season the other drivers barely got a look in. As one team boss put it: "Gronholm has been a step above every other driver all year."
Winning the title second time around was a different proposition for the quiet farmer, who prefers to spend his 3m salary on fields rather than fast cars. "I came back home after winning the title, and there was very little publicity or even a party. In fact, there was more about Kimi Raikkonen in the papers, and he has not even won a race let alone a world championship," Gronholm says, a little wistfully. "But F1 is F1, and all he has to do is go out for dinner and he is on the front page."
It is not all anonymity for the Finn. He reveals that he has a stalker, but with the naivet that surrounds Gronholm, he doubts that such a nuisance is a threat: he has even confronted the man. "He found my house, and keeps coming to it across the fields," says Gronholm, annoyance not anger in his voice. "I don’t think he is dangerous, but I told him not to come any more."
It is 2003, another year, and again Gronholm’s rally kingdom is under siege. The marauders are a pan-European army of speed freaks, among them four past champions, including Burns and Scot Colin McRae.
In Monte Carlo for the 2003 season-opener, it was fiery Frenchman Sebastien Loeb who pressured Gronholm into a rare mistake, then went on to win rallying’s blue-riband event. For Gronholm to lose control of a car is rare, but it was the second rally in a row that he had been forced into a crash.
"Anyone who thinks that Marcus has lost it should think again," McRae observes. "But I guess there is hope for all of us. He is beatable, but it is not going to be easy. The Peugeot is still the car to beat, and Marcus is full of confidence. That is a hell of a combination."
Gronholm is favourite to win the 2003 championship, but after a Ferrari-style whitewash in 2002, the Finn knows that it will be far harder to take a third title come the season finale in Wales in November. Indeed, Burns provides the enemy within.
Almost a year-and-a-half without a win, Gronholm’s equally-lofty team-mate knows that he cannot endure another barren season. Arch-rival McRae reckons Burns can fight back: "I think he must have the confidence in the car now, and he was certainly very quick in a lot of places last year. He just didn’t string it together, whereas Marcus strung it all together. Richard was quicker than Marcus in quite a lot of places."
If Burns is not victorious by round four in New Zealand in April, expect him to be on the phone to Subaru asking for his old job back. Subaru will likely prove one of Peugeot’s closest rivals, with Petter Solberg demonstrating that his maiden win in November’s Rally GB will not be his last. By the season’s end, Makinen will have notched up a record fifth title, or will retire.
Gronholm, however, is worried most by McRae, and the Scottish competitor showed that he is capable of mounting a strong championship attack after taking runner’s-up spot in Monte Carlo. A win was denied only by a spin, but the 1995 world champion was delighted with second place on his debut for Citroen: the French team wiped the floor with the opposition in taking all three places on the podium at the start of their first full season.
"This is the near-perfect way for me to start the season," the Scot acknowledges. "But it’s unfair to expect the team to be able to win on every surface at the moment. For instance, a lot will depend on the weather in Sweden [next weekend]. If it’s a full winter rally, we might have a good chance - but if it isn’t, things might not be so easy."