Tue 02 Apr 2024

Long Read: Grönholm’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ (Part 2)

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. Here’s the second instalment of the Finn’s trip down memory lane as he looks back over his World RX wins so far...

Latvia, 2021

Right from the get-go, Grönholm was one of the leading contenders around Rīga’s technical and demanding Biķernieki trase, and P2 in the intermediate standings earned the Hyundai star pole position for Saturday’s second semi-final. After repelling an early attack from Kevin Hansen, he proceeded to stretch his legs to secure a front row grid slot for the all-important final alongside pole-sitter Johan Kristoffersson.

Contact between the pair on the dash to Turn One sent the Swede spinning, but Grönholm was able to continue unscathed, and when Timo Scheider dropped out of second place later around the opening lap with mechanical issues – delaying his pursuers in the process – the Finn was suddenly gifted a healthy advantage. From that moment on, the result was never really in doubt...

“That was a very good weekend,” the 27-year-old acknowledges. “I had a lot of family and friends there to support me like at Kouvola, and I think we could have won on both days, to be honest. Perhaps Johan [Kristoffersson] was a little bit quicker than us in Sunday’s final, but to score 56 out of a maximum 60 points was fantastic – you can’t really ask for very much more than that.

“What happened at the start of Saturday’s final was just one of those unfortunate incidents that occurs sometimes in racing. I moved slightly to the left to cover off a potential attack from behind, and at the same time, I think Johan moved slightly to the right. Our wheels touched at quite high-speed, and either one of us could have gone off in any direction.

“Eight times out of ten, we would both have got away with it, but ultimately, it was just one of those things – once we made contact, there wasn’t a great deal either of us could have done to avoid it. It probably looked worse from the outside than it actually was.

“In any case, we had the pace to win that race with or without Johan, and Timo [Scheider] retiring on the first lap definitely took the pressure off a little by giving me a bit of extra breathing room, meaning I didn’t need to drive at 110 per cent or take any undue risks.”

Portugal, 2021

Grönholm has developed a habit of winning some of World RX’s most classic and memorable encounters, and this one was no exception. There-or-thereabouts throughout the heat stages at Montalegre, a demon start in the second semi-final propelled him firmly into contention for victory, and while he had to give best to a hard-charging Kristoffersson almost within sight of the chequered flag, he was not done yet.

In the final, the GRX-SET World RX Team ace darted immediately for the joker on the opening tour, and as Kristoffersson and the Hansen brothers proceeded to duel ferociously at the front of the field, the chasing Grönholm was reeling them in.

All three of his rivals delayed their own jokers until the last lap in an effort to put some daylight between themselves and the flying Finn, but it was too late, with the Hyundai driver neatly undercutting them to cement a fifth career triumph at the highest level at the end of a truly pulsating affair.

“I felt what happened with Johan [Kristoffersson] on the last lap of the semi-final was a little bit unfair,” he reflects. “He drove into my rear door and we both received a reprimand, which I didn’t feel was justified in my case – I think Johan made it look a little bit dramatic by driving over the grass and track markers on the inside.

“I wasn’t happy to be starting back on the second row of the grid for the final, and from there, I didn’t really have a choice regarding my strategy for the first corner – I had to dive straight into the joker, and I remember being a bit surprised that nobody else did the same. I didn’t expect to be first in.

“After that, I just focussed on staying in the rhythm and driving my own race. I don’t think we were any faster than the three guys in front, but they fought so much that they slowed each other down and I was able to capitalise. I could see the gap was consistently coming down, and I was very surprised that they all left their jokers until the last lap – I didn’t really understand that – but it certainly worked out well for us!”

Germany, 2021

Lady Luck was not on Grönholm’s side on the opening day of action at the Nürburgring in 2021, as he frequently found himself on the receiving end of contact. Twenty-four hours later, he was on the top step of the podium courtesy of a commanding performance.

Lining up fourth on the grid for the final, by the end of lap two, the Finn was in the lead, after Kevin Hansen and title protagonists Timmy Hansen and Johan Kristoffersson all opted for early jokers as they painstakingly tracked each other’s movements. With the trio remaining razor-focussed on their own battle, Grönholm was able to make good his escape, and when the chequered flag fell, he was more than four seconds up the road.

Like two years earlier in South Africa, the Hyundai star’s triumph was somewhat overshadowed by the duel for the crown, but his third victory of the campaign was nonetheless sufficient to elevate him to a career-high third in the Drivers’ classification, as he wrote his own little piece of history in winning the final race of the sport’s internal combustion-powered era.

“That was another strange weekend,” Grönholm reflects. “We had good pace on the Saturday, but weren’t able to take advantage of it due to various incidents. On the Sunday, maybe it played a bit in my favour that the other guys were in the title fight and I wasn’t.

“They were all concentrating on trying to beat each other, while I stayed out as long as I could in the final, which meant I had a clear windscreen throughout the race. In those conditions –on slick tyres in the snow, mud and rain – having that visibility was quite a big advantage.

“They were fighting behind me, which made my job a lot easier as it meant I could just focus on myself – and it was pretty cool to win the last full combustion race in World RX, I have to admit.”

Portugal, 2022

This was another example of Saturday struggles making way for Sunday success, and another history-making moment.

From the outset on the Sunday at Montalegre, CE Dealer Team looked a much sharper proposition than 24 hours earlier, and while a puncture in heat one did not get Grönholm’s challenge off to the smoothest of starts, the Finn fought back to win his semi-final.

In the final, he took an early joker before hunting down Kristoffersson in the lead, forcing his Volkswagen rival to dig deep indeed to stay ahead. The Swede, however, was subsequently penalised ten seconds for a collision with Timmy Hansen, elevating Grönholm to the top step of the podium for a seventh career triumph – and CE Dealer Team’s first.

“We had decent pace in Portugal,” he recalls, “although the Volkswagens clearly had an advantage over everybody else. I could maybe have played the final a little bit better on Sunday and perhaps had a small chance to make a move (on Kristoffersson), but I didn’t quite manage to pull it off. Still I did my best to put him under as much pressure as I could – I certainly wasn’t going to make his life easy!

“We got a bit lucky with Johan’s penalty and it obviously didn’t feel great to win that way again, but after a difficult start to the season, it was a really important result for the team, not only with me winning but with Klara [Andersson – team-mate] finishing third. We knew performance-wise we still weren’t where we wanted to be, but everybody was pushing so hard to improve and that gave us even more motivation – it was a big milestone for CE Dealer Team.”

Starts: Thursday, July 18, 2024 at 4:31:00 AM
Starts: Friday, July 26, 2024 at 8:30:00 AM
Starts: Saturday, July 27, 2024 at 9:30:00 AM