Monday, December 24, 2007

Sunday, 19 August: Disaster Strikes for Gronholm!

We didn’t have far to go this morning since we had tickets for bleacher seats to watch the Circus Maximus spectator stage, taking place literally steps from the hotel. We checked out after breakfast but left our car in the hotel lot, then went in search of our seats. Two sets of bleachers had been set up along the route and we had been randomly assigned seats in the bleachers near the finish line of the course. We arrived early and were disappointed to discover that we had a pretty lousy view – basically just a long sweeping turn with very little likelihood of any major action – and we’d have to dodge the heads of everyone seated around us. Plus there was no sign of the promised giant video screen, which would have allowed us to see the action on the rest of the course. We decided to walk around for a bit and see if we could find any standing room with a better view, but the best spots were already staked out. On our way back to our seats we spoke to a course worker and asked about the whereabouts of the video screens; he said he didn’t know what had happened but there weren’t any screens anywhere. Frustrated, we returned to our bleacher seats and decided to grin and bear it.

It was rather fun to see the rally cars in a more traditional race setting. The cars went out on the course in staggered groups of four and they lapped the course three times. Of course we only saw them for about three seconds with each pass. We got some nice shots and video, but after watching a few of the N-Class Evos and Subarus go by, we decided to leave early and try to make it to the very last stage of the rally, Moselwein, set in the vineyards in a steeply sloped valley on the north side of the river. (Unfortunately we missed the Dhrontal stage, perhaps the most spectacular setting of the whole rally, because we had opted to see the spectator stage.)

Photos from Circus Maximus:

We parked along the street in a beautiful brand-new residential development and made the long trek up the hill into the vineyards. We found a nice spot amongst the vines on the outside edge of a left-hand turn; the cars would be coming straight at us from a long downhill, then turn sharply to the left and head down what turned out to be a steep concrete drainage ditch. John took up a position higher up between the vine rows for a good video angle; I was standing a few feet up from the rock wall lining the road until a guy saw me there and graciously gestured for me to come down and join the line along the wall. I responded in German but quickly discovered that he was one of a group of Frenchmen – all rooting for Sebastien Loeb, naturally. After a while I said something to him in French and he did a double-take, asking me if I spoke French. I explained that I had studied French in school but was now living in Germany, so my French was suffering (this said in rather faltering French, slipping into German at the end). I daresay he was surprised to find an American girl out watching a rally in the German countryside who could speak (OK, “speak” might be a bit strong) not one but two foreign languages.

We ended up having a pretty thrilling spot from which to observe our last stage of Rallye Deutschland. We all had a grand time watching the top WRC competitors take the screeching left-hander; I was anxiously awaiting Markus Grönholm, who has been my favorite WRC driver ever since he tried to take me out on that crazy turn in the St. Wendelerland stage last year. Grönholm and Loeb were currently first and second in the overall championship, and while the gravel-specialist Finn was not favored to win the asphalt German rally, he needed to hold onto second position to maintain his lead in the championship. So you can imagine my horror and anguish when Grönholm finally came around the turn and the crippled right rear end of his car swung into view. Half of his rear quarter-panel was ripped off, the rear bumper was gone, and his right rear wheel was hanging out at an awkward angle, completely detached from the suspension. Grönholm was obviously determined to limp to the finish line, but his hopes of winning the championship were now called into question.

The French fans cheered madly at Grönholm’s sorry plight. And what was the very next car to come into view? Loeb’s pristine cherry-red Citröen, of course. The Frenchmen went wild. My spirits slightly dampened, we watched the rest of the Super 1600 series while the French fans packed up and left. I grew bored with my position after a while so I moved around a bit, experimenting with some interesting photo angles through the vines. We stuck around until practically everyone else around us had gone…right up until the very last car, the little yellow Fiat Seicento driven by Jürgen Hohlheimer, rounded the bend at the bottom of the ditch and disappeared from view. Then we too packed up, walked down the hill to the car, and headed back to Trier.

Photos from Moselwein:

It was still early in the afternoon so we decided to check out the rally aftermath at Parc Fermé. All of the top finishers had already arrived and we spent some time checking out the cars – dents, scrapes, duct tape and all – while the Super 1600 and N-Class cars pulled in. Several of the drivers paused to check out the damage to Grönholm’s car. After watching some Evos arrive, we walked back to Trier’s main market square to have lunch outside. The rally cars were routed straight through the square so we got to see the final finishers come through while we ate. We were surrounded by rally fans and everyone cheered and waved as the cars came by. Our meal was interrupted by a sudden downpour, but fortunately we were under the cover of a large umbrella. After finishing our lunch, we headed back to the car and made the uneventful drive home to Stuttgart. It was another amazing rally experience for us and we feel exceptionally lucky to have had the opportunity to go twice. Now if only we could get to Rallye Ireland next year…

Photos from Parc Fermé:

Postcript: Only after we returned home and went online did we discover the exact nature of Grönholm’s accident. Apparently he was distracted by a cow grazing close to the road and went off. There were no videocameras or photographers on site and the only record of the crash is from Grönholm’s in-car camera. Less than three weeks later, Grönholm announced his plans to retire after the 2007 WRC season. He ended up placing second in the championship, just four points behind Loeb.

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