Rallying needs Gronholm's charisma to jump-start streamlined championship

The Flying Finn is revitalised after a change of team and tells Derick Allsop he can challenge Sébastien Loeb this season
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The Independent Online

If it is a tall order you are faced with, Marcus Gronholm is your man. At 6ft 5in he stands head and shoulders above most of his rivals and two World Rally Championship titles are testament to his lofty status in the sport.

However, he has arrived at Ford from Peugeot to confront perhaps the biggest challenge of his career. His team in particular and rallying in general are looking up to the 37-year-old Finn to reinvigorate a series seemingly devalued by the withdrawal of four manufacturers and recently rendered a no-contest by the dominance of Sébastien Loeb.

Citroën, the champions, and Peugeot, their sister company, pulled out, followed by Mitsubishi and Skoda, all contending that the spiralling costs could no longer be justified. That leaves Ford and Subaru as the only manufacturers prepared to stick it out. The doom-mongers have concluded that the WRC is in terminal decline.

Yet closer examination of the entry list would suggest things may not be so bad after all and if anything there is an added edge to the anticipation of tomorrow's traditional seasonal opener, the Monte Carlo Rally.

Despite the absence of a factory concern, Citroëns will be run by the Kronos team and Loeb, champion for the past two seasons, will be their No 1 driver. The operation will effectively mirror those of Ford and Subaru, which are run by M-Sport and Prodrive respectively. Three other teams, including Ford's second string, complete the championship line-up.

What matters in sporting terms is that rallying's top three drivers - Loeb, Gronholm and Subaru's Petter Solberg - head the cast and there is a growing belief that the competition will be much closer this time. A batch of young, enthusiastic drivers are being given the opportunity to demonstrate their potential and a sense of optimism is permeating the gloom.

The mood in the Ford camp is buoyant, largely because they are convinced they now have the driver to get the best out of their new Focus RS. Gronholm, in turn, has the fresh start he sought. Ford's team principal, Malcolm Wilson, is hopeful that his new driver will win rallies this season, although he feels the championship itself will be a more realistic target next year.

Gronholm is unequivocal: "I feel we can fight for the championship this year. I am sometimes a bit too optimistic, I know, but after the testing we've done I really believe the car is good enough. We should be thinking about the championship."

Gronholm's ebullience was one of the more engaging features of rallying during much of his seven-year stint with Peugeot, when he won 18 rallies as well as his two titles. But he admits the last two years tested his motivation and his sense of humour. So much so, that he contemplated retirement before he signed for Ford.

"Maybe I did think a little bit about stopping," he said. "At the end it was not what I wanted at Peugeot. We were not competitive enough and couldn't fight Citroën. It was very difficult to enjoy my rallying.

"But at the same time I didn't want it to end like that, to go out on such a low. I wanted to show I could still win rallies and fight for the championship. I know I can do that if I have the opportunity. I believe Ford have given me that opportunity. Everything is different and strange after so long with another team, but I like the team here. I like the way they work and I feel I am settling."

Not that he has had much time to acclimatise. It is little more than two months since the end of the 2005 championship. But he has seen enough of Ford's organisation and the Focus RSWRC06 to be encouraged that Loeb, who won 10 of last year's 16 events, will be within range this time.

"Seb is still the slight favourite, but I think it will be closer this year," Gronholm said. "I am sure we can fight him and I think Petter will fight him also. Last year I would go flat out, pushing my car as much as possible, and then at the end of the stage find that Seb was 20 seconds or something faster. That is hard to take.

"He is with a new team as well so maybe it will not be quite the same for him this time," Gronholm added. "But he still drives a Citroën and we all know how good that car is. The important thing for us is to get the best out of our car.

"It is also important for me and for Ford that we make the championship closer, and it is important for rallying as a whole. It is no good for the sport when a driver wins so easily. But it is up to us and Subaru to fight for the championship.

"I think it will be a good season. OK, it will be difficult on the Monte. Seb is very good here and this is my first rally for Ford. But after that I am sure we can be good on all the other rallies. My motivation is high."

There are concerns in some quarters that Loeb, Gronholm and Solberg have broken away into a "super league" of their own, and that the rest are here to make up the numbers. But then how many championships in any sport can boast more than three genuine contenders? In any case, even two candidates for the 2006 WRC title would be an improvement on 2005.

Gronholm's greater worry is for the future of the sport if more manufacturers or teams are not attracted by the newly regulated, cheaper-to-run WRC.

"For now I don't think it is a big problem and certainly not a crisis," he said. "We need new teams to give the young guys a chance of coming into the sport. At the moment we have a lot of good cars and private teams but we must always be looking to the future."

Right now, though, he prefers to look no further than his first day on the Monte Carlo Rally. "You can never know what it will be like. There has been full snow on the stages, but then it has been melting. Then you get slush and wet roads and if it freezes it is ice. That's the Monte."

Wilson is more confident about the prospects for a budget-conscious WRC. Ford and Subaru are proving it is possible to compete for less than a third of the £60m a season spent by Citroën. Other manufacturers will monitor progress, but Citroën have already announced their intention to return next year.

"There is certainly no crisis in the WRC," Wilson said. "If there was, you wouldn't have such good, private teams and drivers involved. We still have the best top drivers and a lot of fresh blood getting their chance."

One of those youngsters is Wilson's 18-year-old son, Matthew, who drives for Ford's second team, Stobart VK. He is the youngest Briton ever to be given a full WRC drive and is conscious that he will be regarded as the natural successor to Britain's world champions, Colin McRae and the late Richard Burns.

Yet Wilson is made of resilient stuff, as he showed by coming back from a big crash in Wales last year. He shattered his knee into 10 pieces and broke an arm and wrist. His knee was wired back together and two domestic victories by the end of the season removed any doubts of permanent psychological damage.

Wilson Jnr said: "I'm not going to put too much pressure on myself because we're working to a five- or six-year plan before I can think about achieving what Colin and Richard achieved. I've got a lot to learn." Starting with these next three days on the Monte...

WRC 2006: Challengers for Citroën's vacant throne

KRONOS TOTAL CITROEN

In Citroën's absence, last year's champion, Sébastien Loeb, will drive for Kronos alongside the young Spaniard Xavier Pons.

FORD

Looking strong this year with double champion Marcus Gronholm and fellow Finn Mikko Hirvonen in the new Focus WRC.

SUBARU

Drivers are the rapidly improving Petter Solberg and Australian Chris Atkinson.

OMV-PEUGEOT

Ex-works Peugeot 307s driven by privateers Manfred Stohl and Henning Solberg.

STOBART VK M-SPORT FORD RALLY TEAM

Ford's second string featuring 18-year-old Matthew Wilson, the 2005 Rally Yorkshire winner and the youngest driver to start a WRC, and the 31-year-old Belgian Pieter Tsjoen.

RED BULL SKODA

Moves into the WRC after some success in Formula One. Have signed up Mattias Ekstrom, the German DTM touring car champion, and French driver Gilles Panizzi.

RACE SCHEDULE

20-22 January Monte Carlo

3-5 February Sweden

3-5 March Mexico

24-26 March Catalunya

7-9 April Corsica

28-30 April Argentina

19-21 May Italy

2-4 June Acropolis

11-13 August Germany

18-20 August Finland

1-3 September Japan

22-24 September Cyprus

13-15 October Turkey

27-29 October Australia

17-19 November New Zealand

1-3 December Britain

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