Thu 28 Mar 2024

Long Read: Grönholm’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ (Part 1)

Recently confirmed for his ninth full season in the sport’s top-flight, Niclas Grönholm is statistically the fifth-winningest driver in FIA World Rallycross Championship history. As we approach the long Easter weekend, why not grab a coffee and join the Finn on a trip down memory lane, as he reflects upon his seven World RX wins so far...

Norway, 2019


Grönholm began the 2019 campaign with title aspirations, but they were derailed after only the second round when appendicitis and a subsequent operation to have the offending organ removed ruled him out of the following two events.


Hell in the middle of June marked his return to action, and he sensationally set the pace in three of the four heats behind the wheel of his GRX Taneco Team Hyundai i20 to clinch Top Qualifier (TQ) honours for the first time in his career.


The heavens opened in dramatic fashion immediately before the semi-finals, but Grönholm dominated again, and while pole position for the final was palpably not the place to be in such conditions, he benefitted from a post-race penalty and disqualification ahead to claim his maiden World RX victory in his 39th appearance – payback after being penalised himself in Abu Dhabi, denying him the top step of the podium in the season curtain-raiser.


“It was a strange weekend, but obviously a very special one too,” he recollects. “I wasn’t fully healed from the operation and was still on quite a lot of painkillers and antibiotics – the doctors weren’t completely happy that I was going racing again, but they told me if I felt ok, then I could do it. It was a ‘light green’ approval, you could say!


“I knew our chances in the championship were pretty slim after missing two rounds, which relieved the pressure a bit, and for most of the weekend, it felt like whatever I did turned out right – it’s not very often in racing that you get that feeling. In heat four, I drove on tyres that should have been put out in the garbage some time earlier – and we still managed to go fastest! It was just that kind of weekend, and it was nice to come back and deliver straightaway.


“A couple of minutes before the semi-finals began, there was a crazy heavy rain shower, leaving puddles all over the circuit. There was predictably quite a lot of carnage, but for us, the race went well and that secured me pole position for the final – although with so much rubber down on the track, that was probably the worst place to start! I consequently didn’t get a great launch, which left me stuck behind Kevin Hansen, who didn’t really have the pace.


“It was impossible to overtake in those conditions, but in the end it didn’t matter as the two guys who finished ahead of me both got penalties. Obviously you always want to win on the track rather than like that, but even though I wasn’t first past the chequered flag, we were the fastest all weekend so I didn’t feel like we lucked into the win in any way. It was definitely deserved.”


South Africa, 2019


Had fate not intervened, of course, Grönholm could and almost certainly would have travelled to South Africa for the season finale right in the thick of the title fight. As it was, he was out of contention, but if his championship-chasing rivals believed they were going to have things all their own way in Cape Town, they were mistaken.


Two heat wins propelled the GRX team leader to the summit of the intermediate standings again, and while a sluggish start enabled Andreas Bakkerud to narrowly pip him in the first of the semi-finals, Grönholm took full advantage of the well-documented collision on the opening lap of the final to hit the front of the field, and from there on, he would never again be troubled.


“It goes without saying that I would rather have been in the title battle, but with that not being the case, I wasn’t really thinking about points or what the other guys were doing – we were just focussed on ourselves and on trying to win the last round of the season,” he explains. “Like in Norway, the car was really strong at Killarney and I had a good feeling right from the outset – everything just clicked.


“I had a jump-start in one of the heats which held me back a little bit, but we were able to overcome that with the pace we had and it was a great weekend overall, even if I made life a little bit difficult for myself in the semi-final; I didn’t get a great launch, which allowed Bakkerud to pass me into Turn One.


“That relegated me to the second row of the grid for the final, and I was a bit lucky when Andreas and Timmy [Hansen] made contact on the first lap. Nevertheless, like in Norway, I think we deserved to win based on the performance we showed and it was a good feeling to end the season in that way.”


Finland, 2020


Grönholm’s third World RX success came on home soil at Kouvola, on one of only two occasions the series has raced in Finland. Having been outperformed by super-fast countryman and team-mate Juha Rytkönen on the opening day, the GRX ace came out firing on all cylinders 24 hours later, and after placing second in the post-heats classification, he comfortably won his semi-final and then neatly undercut pole-sitter Johan Kristoffersson on the exit of Turn One in the final to seize the initiative.


Thereafter, Grönholm’s mirrors were filled race-long by Kristoffersson’s Volkswagen Polo and the Audi S1 of fellow world champion Mattias Ekström, both of whom he artfully fended off throughout to take the chequered flag first by the margin of less than 0.4 seconds...


“Being my home event, I had a lot of family and friends on-site that weekend,” he recalls. “The field was very tight, which made small details very important and virtually any of the drivers in the final could have won on either day.


“I had a plan for the first corner in Sunday’s final, and it worked out really well. Everybody knows that if Johan [Kristoffersson] comes out of Turn One in the lead, he is almost impossible to beat, so that’s where I had to make my move and the execution was pretty much perfect. After that, I had to focus on keeping him and Mattias [Ekström] behind me for six laps!


“We had an idea that the joker was a little bit quicker than the standard lap due to the respective grip levels, but I don’t think anybody realised just how much quicker it was! Until the last corner, I think everybody reckoned Johan was going to win, since I still had to take the joker and he was right on my bumper.


“It was a bit of a surprise to everybody that we came out ahead – myself included – and of course it was special to win at home. That’s always something you strive for, particularly as a Finn, because we don’t get the opportunity very often...”


Come back on Tuesday for Part 2...

Latvia
Starts: Thursday, July 18, 2024 at 4:31:00 AM
Italy
Starts: Friday, July 26, 2024 at 7:00:00 AM
Hungary
Starts: Saturday, July 27, 2024 at 6:00:00 AM