With 108 World Rally Championship starts to his name, 37 stage wins and a solitary victory, Ola Fløene has seen his fair share of things in rallying.
But he’s still learning new tricks as he makes his full-time transition from rallying co-driver to rally-raid navigator.
Those two terms are often mistaken for each other, but as Fløene embarks on his latest adventure on the Dakar Rally, with fellow former WRC competitor Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, it’s clear that both are part-and-parcel of the rally-raid life.
While the passenger seat is reserved for navigation – and the term is used quite literally in cross-country – co-driving is also a crucial element given some of the horrendously long liaisons back to the bivouac.
Some liaisons have totaled 600km. In the context of the WRC, that’s a mammoth distance.
Fløene’s not a complete newbie to the Dakar, having made his debut in the discipline back in 2020 with American Mitch Guthrie Jr.
But, speaking to DirtFish on the eve of the 45th edition, the Norwegian explains how rally-raid and conventional rallying are simply poles apart.
“In the beginning it was scary because in the WRC, it’s like circuit racing,” says Fløene.
“Everything is so precise. And when I saw the drawing in the [Dakar] roadbook, if you see a sharp 90 right, it can [mean] something completely different.
“So, I was a bit scared in the beginning that I was not giving enough information. I still have it in my mind like ‘don’t say so much, only say what you need to say because the driver needs to find the way himself’, you know?”
It almost seems counter-intuitive for an experienced rallying co-driver to speak less during a stage, and perhaps it is. After all, Fløene has spent decades perfecting and fine-tuning pacenote delivery and speed for his drivers, in the most minute of details.
Shifting from a rally such as Corsica or Monte Carlo, where the corners come at you sometimes faster than you can read, to the wide-open desert where the nearest direction is 10km away, takes some mental preparation.
“You need to be fit if you want to do this,” Fløene explains. “The hardest bit is the concentration, it’s like a very, very hard, long recce in a normal rally.
“And then you have the heat, you maybe get lost a couple of times, that for sure happens every day and that costs you a lot mentally because your mind is always working.
“So mentally I am 25, and that is a good thing!”
Feeling younger in the head is a particularly good trait to have as a Dakar navigator as reaction times and thinking on your feet come in handy, particularly when navigation becomes tricky.
But as a 53-year-old, Fløene also has age on his side. You see, if modern WRC co-drivers are getting younger and younger, one thing the Dakar has shown over the years is that success tends to come through experience.
“I see the best co-drivers here are close to 60, so if everything stays ship-shape, and you stay fit and continue to love the sport, then you can have a long career here.”
Fløene and Al Qassimi have had a relatively strong start to their Dakar partnership, lying 17th overall after six stages, despite receiving a 15-minute penalty for missing a waypoint.
I had come to a point in the WRC where I wanted to try something elseOla Fløene
They’ve done what many others ahead of them have failed to do: stay out of trouble and stay in the reckoning.
It speaks volumes of the duo that they’ve been able to team up so quickly, seemingly without any issues.
What’s the secret?
“The main thing is that I need to trust the driver and the driver needs to trust me and we need to help each other,” Fløene says.
“You only get the roadbook minutes before the start of the stage, then you have to follow the compass cap headings, it’s easier if there are some guys in front of you but sometimes, they can be going the wrong way.
“So, sometimes you just need to trust yourself and, if you find a road and you like to be in the mountains in the fog trying to find your cabin, then this is the right sport for you. And I love it!”
Fløene’s passion for rally-raid is clear to see; it’s why he’s prepared to leave the WRC life behind him and focus on forging a new career in the cross-country discipline.
“I had come to a point in the WRC – I really love the sport – where I wanted to try something else; when I was with Volkswagen I was always so fascinated to listen to the mechanics.
“Most of them had come from the Dakar [program] and they still had the car, so I was so interested, and I said to myself ‘before I get too old, I need to do this’. For me, this is my sport now and I have the biggest smile on my face.”
It’s not uncommon for WRC co-drivers to make the switch to rally-raid, as Mathieu Baumel (navigator for Nasser Al-Attiyah) and Michael Orr (former navigator to Yazeed Al Rajhi) have shown, but Fløene admits that the learning curve has been steep.
“The hardest thing is when you realize that you’ve taken the wrong road, and you go the wrong way for one or two kilometers and have to tell the driver to take a U-turn!” he said.
“Because that never happens normally. I have not gotten lost with Khalid yet, but the person he is – we worked together a lot and he is so friendly – I will be interested to see what happens if we get lost.”