Before the 21st century, when two Frenchmen called Sébastien decided to obliterate the World Rally Championship’s record books, Scandinavians were the recognized drivers to beat in rallying.
But Norway, despite long having had a strong national scene, never quite birthed the same talent onto the world scene as neighbors Sweden and Finland – at least until Petter Solberg arrived in the early 2000s and duly won the 2003 title.
Back then when Solberg beat Loeb to Rally GB victory and the championship, Mads Østberg was just a month shy of turning 16 and was starting to realize that rallying could form a major part of his life.
The son of successful national driver Morten, Østberg has of course gone on to forge a strong career in the World Rally Championship with over 130 starts, 18 podiums, one rally win and a world title in WRC2.
As you might expect, the Norwegian is quick to admit that “I would probably not be a rally driver” had his father not been one, but getting behind the wheel himself was not a realistic consideration to begin with.
“I didn’t really want to become a rally driver myself because it was just not in my mind at the time,” he tells DirtFish.
“But then I started to be a co-driver for my dad when I was 14 so we did quite a lot of rallies together. He was in a Subaru [Impreza] WRC so I obviously enjoyed that quite a lot and after a year of that, we did some testing and he let me drive the car a few times just to see how it felt and I obviously really enjoyed it.
“It just happened over a short amount of time around when I was 15.”
So while typical 15-year-olds across the world were interested in hanging out with their friends and finding love, Østberg was on the hunt for a rally car of his own and eventually purchased a slightly battered Opel Ascona.
“The Ascona was the first car that I bought, I still actually have that car,” he says, proudly. “I paid around £1200 for it, so 15,000 Norwegian krone, and tried to fix it and repair it myself with help from some other people.
“It was already a rally car but I remember when I bought it there were some engine problems, it wasn’t really in a good shape. I used a lot of time trying to repair it and make it work, and after some months it finally started to work and I could go to Sweden then to do my rallies.
“I did a few rallies and that’s when I figured out OK, I really enjoy this and I actually did quite well.”
The problem was after day one I was leading the whole thing, so people did notice!Mads Østberg on his appearance at the 2005 South Swedish Rally
Østberg quickly realized he’d need a more competitive car to progress however, and so he acquired a Volvo 740 and used it at the end of his debut rallying season in 2004 and into 2005. It was a decision that would pay off, as Østberg “basically won all the rallies I did in that Volvo, not only for the juniors but among the grown-ups as well”.
The highlight was his performance on the South Swedish Rally in 2005, which at that time was part of the North European Rally Cup. That rally turned out to be one of the most important in Østberg’s career to date and produced quite a “brilliant story”.
“I was only 17 so I didn’t have a drivers’ license at the time, so I spoke with the organizers and they would let me go as a zero car to be able to compare the times and see how I do, but I couldn’t be a part of the competition,” Østberg recalls.
“I remember they asked me just to enter the rally so they could get all my information – the car and license and everything – and they would just move me over to the zero car. So I entered, I did everything, but they never moved me; I was still a part of the entry list.
“I called the clerk of the course – I know him quite, well he was quite a famous co-driver in Sweden, Anders Davidson, who had done quite a lot of rallies – and I said, ‘Listen, Anders, I’m still on the entry list, you need to do your thing’. And he said, ‘No do you know what Mads? Just stay on the entry list, it’s more than 100 cars, no-one will notice’.
“So I remember I had start number 172 so it was a lot of cars, and it was a two-day rally. The problem was after day one I was leading the whole thing, so people did notice!
“There is quite a famous Swedish driver called Thomas Gulab Johansson who used to be a factory driver in the old days and he still did some PR activities with Volvo on that rally so he was actually in the same category as me, and they had built a brand-new factory Volvo and he was second behind me after the first time.
It created a story that helped me a lot over the next few years after thatMads Østberg
“It ended up with them writing a written complaint to the organizers because I was not old enough basically, and I was disqualified after the first day. That was hard but I think at the same time it created a story which helped me a lot over the next few years after that.
“It’s a brilliant story, thinking back at it now it’s one of the best things that could’ve happened and the whole thing is just brilliant. I think that was the first time when probably things got a bit more serious and I started to realize that OK, I’m quite good at this.
“Actually based on that is how I signed my contract with Subaru Norway which led me into driving Subaru WRC cars.”
Jumping into a World Rally Car – the exact same kind that had taken Solberg to Norway’s first WRC title – as a teenager was certainly no small step, but Østberg was up for that challenge.
Teamed with Anders Grøndal, Østberg was given an Impreza S9 WRC, which was a year older than his stablemate’s S10 example, but it was the younger, more inexperienced driver in the inferior machine who came out on top.
“That was good for me,” Østberg says, “and I won the last rally of the season [Rally Hedemarken].
“I finished quite constantly on the podium all the time so I finished second in the championship, behind Thomas Schie who was Norwegian champion quite a few times. Subaru then decided to buy me the same car as Anders so we were both in S10s in 2007 and that’s when I won all the rallies in the Norwegian championship.”
That dominant 2007 title kickstarted a run of three successive national titles from 2007-2009, but Østberg had eyes on bigger things. Making his WRC debut in 2006 with appearances in Sweden, Finland and Wales, he soon became a regular on European WRC rounds between 2007 and 2010 driving either an Impreza S12B or S14 WRC.
At first this was quite intimidating, but there were some elements that made his adjustment to the WRC easier than it might have been for others.
“I remember the recce was just a different level; the length of the rallies and everything was just a little bit scary,” Østberg says. “It was strange, but I think one of my benefits is I was not really a fan of WRC at the time, so I didn’t really follow the drivers a lot.
“Let’s say I wasn’t completely star-struck or anything, I was still able to breathe when I met them. In one way Petter and these guys were like superheroes to me but at the same time I was able to do my job around them.”
Østberg hadn’t fully migrated to the world championship – he would still complete full Norwegian seasons – but his priority had shifted to making a name for himself on the biggest stage.
His career began to hit its first lull at this point though as, despite trying as hard as he could, he never quite grabbed the headline result he was likely capable of.
“I was trying to improve in WRC but we found out after a few years that we probably struggled a bit too much by running the WRC cars, especially doing it ourselves and when there was no factory team there [when Subaru pulled out after 2008] there wasn’t really any support,” Østberg explains.
“2009 and 2010 we were a little bit lost in things, I did some rallies in the S14 then I actually found I was quicker in the 2006 Subaru so in 2010 we did most of the WRC events with the S12 rather than the S14.
“So there were, let’s say, some years where we were a little bit lost and we didn’t know exactly what to do.”
Fortunately, things were about to change. Taking one step backwards to make two forwards is a concept Østberg is familiar with nowadays as he’s stepped down to WRC2 in order to propel himself back into contention for a top-line seat, and that’s in effect what he did in 2010 too.
Østberg struck a deal to drive a Ford Fiesta S2000 in the new SWRC category on Rally Germany and Rally France Alsace. Although the car was less powerful than his own Subaru, Østberg had begun a relationship with one of rallying’s most influential characters: Malcolm Wilson.
“At the time Henning Solberg had a very good relationship with Malcolm Wilson as well so he was a little bit like the middleman for that, but we found an agreement to do two asphalt rallies with the S2000,” says Østberg.
“That was the first time in the car and I didn’t really have a lot of experience on Tarmac but we did quite well in the car, we were leading the rallies at some points and I think I went off in both of them but we had good pace at least. That was the beginning of the relationship with M-Sport anyway.”
I was probably a little too young to understand completely how good it was, it's more impressive looking back on itMads Østberg on his standout second place at the start of the WRC's 1.6-liter era
That relationship would continue into 2011, as Østberg joined the second-string M-Sport Stobart team as the WRC headed into a new era of smaller, 1.6-liter-engined cars. On the snow of Sweden, Ford works drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latavla were perhaps expected to stirke an early blow to Citroën and its two Sébastiens, Loeb and Ogier.
Nobody therefore expected Østberg to be the one leading the way after the first full day of competition for this new breed of World Rally Car. While Hirvonen would ultimately pip Østberg to the win, he gamely clung on to second place and ended up just 6.4 seconds shy of top spot.
“It still stands out as one of the best memories in my career so far,” Østberg admits.
“I think it was in one way just a relief because I had done so many rallies in a car which wasn’t that competitive and I’d been to my limit so many times without really achieving the proper results, just seeing that I have the potential to be there, to be on the top in WRC was obviously a great feeling.
“That was really amazing. Still, I was probably a little too young to understand completely how good it was, it’s more impressive looking back on it than it felt for me at the time.”
Østberg’s 2011 ended how it began with another second place on Rally GB, capping off his most prosperous WRC season to date that left him sixth in the final standings despite skipping the trip to Australia.
2012 is best remembered for his peak on Rally Portugal where Østberg claimed his one and only WRC win to date, but in truth the entire year was sublime.
Even though he missed both the Monte Carlo Rally and Rally Argentina and was running as a privateer entrant, with M-Sport only looking after his car between events, Østberg was embroiled in a fight for third in the championship with works driver Latvala that he lost by just five points.
“It was a very good year to be honest, I think we did a lot of the right things,” Østberg reckons.
“We had many good results, many podiums and obviously the win in Portugal, so looking back it’s one of the best years I’ve had and also because it was still more as a privateer, I didn’t have to deal with any of the big team politics, any leaders or any of those things we could just enjoy it like a small team. I have a lot of good, good memories from that to be honest.”
Østberg’s win – or the manner in which it was claimed – could, oddly, be the one dampener, as it was claimed in the stewards’ room rather than on the road following the exclusion of Hirvonen’s DS3 WRC. That means Østberg never got to enjoy the full winners’ experience as he didn’t reach the final stopline knowing he’d done it, nor did he stand atop of the podium. But Østberg doesn’t view his success like that at all.
“It was a long time ago so I think just by the time passing away I know obviously it’s a win there, that’s it,” he says.
“It was anyway a very good feeling from a good rally and a podium, I had the celebration I wanted to have and I had the good feeling that I wanted to have so I’m happy to have it.”
Østberg’s standout 2012 season earned him a call-up to the main Ford team, which for 2013 was simply known as M-Sport like it is today after Ford scaled back its commitment to the WRC. It was therefore his first ever full season of world championship rallying, but it will ultimately go down as a year of frustration.
“We were pushing really hard to win again and to do it quite quickly,” he says, “but 2013 became a very, very difficult year with a lot of technical issues disturbing every rally for the first half of the season.
“So in one way we decided to just try to just manage that year and try to move along, I made the move to Citroën then for 2014 and the pressure was always there to win again but I think at the time you then had Volkswagen joining in as well, which was a hard time, let’s say.
“I was in a good team and I really enjoyed what I was doing but there was no doubt that through my years there in the factory teams Volkswagen was there to beat everyone.”
Driving a Polo R WRC at that time was effectively like accessing a cheat code for a video game. If you had it, you had a good advantage over your competitors. Volkswagen was so dominant that Østberg can distinctly remember Citroën’s strategy shifting through his two years there in 2014 and 2015.
“While first it was, ‘We have to beat them, we have to do everything’, finally we almost were just giving up and focusing on trying to mix in with them from time to time. It was almost impossible to beat them.”
Østberg moved back to M-Sport for 2016 after two decent season in red, but that was a move he has previously told DirtFish that he now regrets. After a year of running his own Fiesta WRC, Østberg returned to Citroën in 2018 for the latter half of the season, following the abrupt dismissal of Kris Meeke, but he wasn’t kept on for 2019 either despite two standout podium finishes.
“It’s been a bit back and forward,” Østberg says of the last few years.
“Joining M-Sport in 2016, it’s a chapter which is behind me. For sure, I think from 2018 I have had a foot in Citroën and still have and still enjoy what I do, so in one way I think 2018 was a very good year.
“I enjoyed it a lot, and I think we did brilliantly but now we are in WRC2 and that’s our focus at the moment, but I remain very motivated to do what it takes to get back into a Rally1 car, if one opportunity comes.”
Østberg’s most recent rallying success was winning last year’s WRC2 title, but he’s adamant he still has more to prove at the very top.
“I have to use WRC2 as my place to show my speed and I think everyone knows that my level there is high and we see constantly WRC drivers there, and I think to be quite fair we are probably the fastest at the moment in our championship; constantly beating Andreas [Mikkelsen],” he says.
“We are doing what we are supposed to do. I am always there on every rally, we’ve never had a bad rally. We are always winning stages, we are always leading rallies. OK, we have had some setbacks, no doubt, but that’s nothing to do with the driving so I remain positive and I’m happy that we are showing our pace.
“I need to be focused on where I am at the moment but I also need to also stay focused on trying to achieve my goals and one of those goals is to make the step back to WRC.”
It certainly wouldn’t be an injustice for a new chapter of Østberg’s WRC story to be opened.