Marcus Gronholm’s retirement from the World Rally Championship will leave a big void in the WRC driver ranks that will take some filling.

For the past couple of years, it has been only Gronholm that has been regularly able to challenge World Champion Sebastien Loeb for victory. And with his retirement comes the end of that rivalry.

There are plenty of drivers capable of mixing it with Loeb when everything falls into place, but it remains to be seen if anyone can do it day in and day out when the 2008 WRC kicks off in January.

Mikko Hirvonen won three events this year, but his tarmac form hasn’t been earth-shattering, and for most of the season he trailed his team-mate, Gronholm, for outright speed. Jari-Matti Latvala showed his true talent on Rally GB, but again, his tarmac speed is questionable.

At Subaru, both Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson have shown they have the speed at different times, but their chances of success rely wholely and solely, it would seem, on the ability of Subaru and Prodrive to produce a car that is capable of setting fast stage times. In recent years, that hasn’t been the case.

So with Gronholm out of the picture, how will he be remembered? World Champion in 2000 and 2002 in the Peugeot 206 WRC, the tall Finn could easily have won at least four titles, but ultimately, it was driving errors that will see him with only two titles as history progresses.

After a sparkling career with Peugeot, Gronholm became increasingly fed up with the ill-handling and mechanically-challenged 307 World Rally Car, and switched to Ford for the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

Now, as 2007 draws to a close, he has helped the Blue Oval secure the manufacturers’ title in consecutive years, but couldn’t quite take the drivers’ crown, finishing second both times.

In 2006 the title was really his for the taking. When Sebastien Loeb missed Rally Australia due to injury, the ultimate prize looked a certainty, but he crashed on the very first forest stage in Western Australia, dropping around 11 minutes and losing any chance of victory in the rally, or the championship.

In 2007 he led the championship with three rounds to go, only to crash out of both the Japanese and Irish rounds. As history now shows, while he finished second in the final round in Wales, it wasn’t enough to prevent Loeb from winning a fourth world title.

As time marches on, that will be what people remember Gronholm for, which is more the pity. None of the aforementioned crashes were big, car destroying accidents, and you could be forgiven for thinking that luck simply wasn’t on his side, particularly in Ireland. Although the impact into the stone wall was hard and rally-ending, it was hardly an accident you would put down to over-driving.

Sport is often not fair, though, and Gronholm retires knowing that he gave it his all. A legion of fans around the world will testify to his ability, his humour and his importance to the World Rally Championship, and the WRC will be much poorer for his retirement.

It’s now hoped that some of the much-heralded “young guns” can quickly step up to the plate and ensure that Sebastien Loeb doesn’t have it all his own way.

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