There are so many things that make rallying the greatest discipline of sport in the entire world – the drama, the camaraderie, the adventure and the awesome displays of skill.
The story of Mads Østberg’s 2018 Otago Rally encapsulates all of them masterfully.
OK, that’s maybe a bit facetious. There was the usual dosage of heartache and despair involved as the rear axle on the Rosendale Ford Escort Mk2 he was driving did break on the rally’s first stage – prompting an entire component change at service in order for Østberg to restart the event.
But what happened next could only happen in rallying, and provided Østberg with far more joy, satisfaction and laughs than any victory could. It’s the people and the emotions that make rallying so great, and how close you get to nature.
Østberg picks up the story: “We retired already on the first stage with a broken rear axle, but that’s actually not the good story,” he teases.
“The good story came later in the rally when we managed to restart the event after changing the whole rear axle, but then we bent the rear axle again on the second day.
“I don’t know exactly why it happened but it seemed like one of the arms holding the rear axle was bent and then finally cracked, so that was in the middle of a stage and as you know, I’m not giving up easily. The first thing I did was to try and see if we could fix it.”
Stop in the middle of a race at a racetrack and you’ve no hope of continuing. Track-side marshals will come to your assistance and wheel your car to safety but your event is done.
Not so in rallying. Østberg admittedly was in a bit of a pickle as although he would’ve been carrying some spare components, he didn’t have parts in the trunk of his Escort to fix the axle.
No matter. Somebody else would.
“Luckily where we stopped there was a farm so we thought ‘why not just knock on the door and see if he has a welder?'” he says.
“We came over to the shed and we couldn’t really just weld it back on because there was not enough material, so we ended up using an old fence post which was made of steel and welding it onto the arm, and then we could actually refit it.
“It was just brilliant, we were working there for I would say about half an hour just welding everything back together, refitting the arm and the axle was back in position and we could continue.
“So we went onto the next stage and I think we won the rest of the stages from there on, so it was a brilliant story and a really good feeling. Actually, when we came back to service I refused to change it to a new one, I wanted to finish the rally with a fence post.”
And that’s exactly what he did. Østberg, a World Rally Championship winner, had simply approached a farmer whose land was next to the stage and asked for his help. And the farmer obliged. It’s just utterly incredible.
“He was a really nice guy, as everyone is in New Zealand, to be honest. Everyone is just so friendly and relaxed as well, and he didn’t really get stressed about it at all,” Østberg says.
“He took his time, fitting his boots and taking his jacket and explaining what he did there and what kind of farmer he was, so I learned a lot about that man that day.
“It was great fun when it happened. The rally result-wise was gone anyway so we were there to enjoy and to do the stages and to have fun.”
Østberg would return to Otago the following year and win the classic rally, but the legend of the fence post lived on.
“At the prize giving the second year I was there, the fence post came back and it went up for auction and it was sold for quite hefty money,” Østberg explains.
“It was one of the mechanics who bought it, actually one from our team who was not there the first year, he was there as a mechanic the second year.”
That’s a piece of rally memorabilia well worth having your hands on, and it’s a story Østberg is thrilled to be able to share.
Forget the stage wins, podiums, victories and championships he has and will achieve throughout his rallying career, it’s tales like these that’ll truly stick with Østberg forever.
“I really loved it the way we did it because that’s what rallying should be about. Sometimes the modern rallies that we do, they are very strict on time and everything is like that. But on this occasion, we could just relax and repair the car and take our time and get back into the rally which was brilliant.
“This made the whole event just a lot better in my opinion with this story.”