Things this year may have been far calmer than the crazy co-driver market of 2021, but this World Rally Championship season finally has its first big co-driver story.
Paul Nagle has decided to retire from WRC competition, ending his in-car partnership with Craig Breen after Rally Spain – allowing Breen’s new co-driver (who’s yet to be identified) the chance to adjust on Rally Japan ahead of the 2023 season with M-Sport.
Nagle, 44, hasn’t taken this decision lightly, but with two young children at home he felt now is the time to take a step back.
“We’re here in New Zealand and Kalle hopefully will be world champion today,” Nagle told DirtFish on Sunday.
“And he was 16 years of age when I won Finland [in 2016]. And I kind of had a chat with myself a couple of months ago, ‘right, Paul, he’s more than half my age, I’m 44 now and I am the [second] oldest in the factory cars’. I’ve had a great run.”
He most certainly has. Competing alongside the likes of Andreas Mikkelsen and of course Kris Meeke as well as Breen, Nagle has had a tremendously successful career on the world stage that’s yielded five wins and 18 podiums over 101 starts so far (Spain will be his 102nd).
Neatly, his WRC debut was also on Rally Spain and also in a Ford, but his entry into the 2004 event with Donie O’Sullivan was a bit of a different world to competing for a factory outfit.
“It was one of my neighbors, actually, in 2004,” Nagle said.
“We went out in a privateer Focus, and I was in awe out there, watching the whole world championship. It was based in Lloret de Mar back then would you believe.
“I did a couple of gravel notes in 2001 and ‘02 during the foot and mouth years, and I got a taste of that. But it took until 2006 to get back in the world championship with the MacHale family from Ireland. And it just took off from there really.”
Those two years with Gareth MacHale – son of Irish rallying legend Austin – would prove massively influential. They gave Nagle experience of the world as he traveled outside Europe to Argentina, Japan and México – where he scored his first WRC points – but a ride back home on the Easter International Rally in 2007 would be key.
Meeke was the driver that Nagle had the most success with over the years. Pairing up to win the Intercontinental Rally Challenge title with Peugeot in 2009, the WRC soon beckoned once more in 2011 when Meeke and Nagle were signed alongside Dani Sordo and Carlos del Barrio to drive for Mini.
“It really got very, very serious then from 2011,” Nagle recalled. “I had IRC days as well with Kris, then 2012 it was with Craig in difficult circumstances and then in the end it was 2014 on really were the big days for Paul Nagle.”
Mini’s WRC program faded to nothing almost as quickly as it had been born and with Meeke without a drive, Nagle found refuge in his current partner Breen in the wake of the tragic accident that killed Gareth ‘Jaffa’ Roberts.
But Nagle would be back with Meeke for 2014 for what he called “the big days” as they spearheaded Citroën’s WRC team for four and a half years, winning five rallies in DS3 and C3 WRC machinery.
A maiden podium for both of them on the 2014 Monte was the perfect way to kickstart the period, but perhaps nothing could top that fateful day in Argentina 2015 when Meeke and Nagle scooped their first ever world championship victory.
“We were on our game that time,” said Nagle, “and I suppose we’d had a rough start to ‘15 – a couple of OK results and we went to Argentina on the other side of the world and it was a unique event, big 30km stages done twice.
“There was no service or anything, so we were all out in the middle of nowhere, and we got in front from the start.
“The Volkswagens had a few problems and we kept going all the way, and Sunday morning heading up to El Condor, up to the other side of the world as I call it, and I remember still Thierry Neuville crashing in the powerstage and Andreas Mikkelsen crashing and I knew my heart and soul going ‘what are all the lads thinking at home’, they’re probably shaking with fear for us.
“That felt great, that weekend. A win there, obviously a big, massive achievement with Kris. And it was a huge thing for British motorsport and Irish motorsport, the last two winners of a WRC round were both dead, and it was a fitting tribute for Kris to win it.
We were two young fellas starting in the Irish Sea, we hadn’t a care in the worldPaul Nagle
“It was a big emotional event for me as well. You always dream of getting to the world championship, setting a fastest time, getting a podium, and if you’re on the top step it’s a massive achievement.”
It’s a feeling Nagle would grow accustomed to over the next two seasons. While he and Meeke didn’t compete full-time in 2016 – the majority of their time was spent testing and developing Citroën’s challenger for the new regulations in 2017 – many pinpoint that season as when Meeke was at his peak.
An effortless win in Portugal (admittedly aided by a good road position on Friday) chalked up WRC win number two for Nagle but their performance on Rally Finland that year was simply sensational.
“We had a huge relationship,” Nagle said. “We started out with nothing, we were two young fellas starting in the Irish Sea, we hadn’t a care in the world, and we progressed through life and through rallies, and we had a massive bond in the car.
“And we grew up to be husbands and fathers together, met our girlfriends and all that. But we went on to win huge rallies and went on to get 12 podiums with Kris. The most famous one has to be in Finland.
“With all this talk about it, I can still remember you [Colin Clark] at the stop-line of Ouninpohja on Saturday morning, and 33kms of pure magic. And it was, to date, Kris Meeke’s finest hour.”
Although the C3 WRC ultimately proved to be an incredibly precarious car, Meeke and Nagle did still take two victories with it – in México and Spain.
But while Finland 2016 may be classed as their best win, México 2017 has to be their most memorable for Meeke’s powerstage trip into a car park and Nagle’s famous “Jesus Christ Kris!” exclamation as the pair headed for what seemed to be retirement.
“It’s one I kind of keep out of the way and don’t really talk about a lot because it could have gone horribly wrong!” Nagle laughed.
“It will go down in the history books, it will go down forever more as one of the luckiest wins. We can laugh about it now, at the time it was a big, big moment. But it was Kris Meeke out of the door. We won’t have characters like him again.
“It was cherished, all those results and all those wins, and all the highs and lows. There were a lot of dark times as well. But we always rose above it and got the better of it eventually.”
Meeke controversially lost his drive halfway through 2018 and that’s where his journey with Meeke ended as Meeke took Sebastian Marshall with him to Toyota in 2019.
With Breen also shoveled out of Citroën’s lineup to make way for Sébastien Ogier and Esapekka Lappi, Breen and Nagle rekindled their relationship to begin a fightback to the WRC that culminated in the Irish Tarmac title and a lifeline with Hyundai.
Signed as part-time drivers for 2019, 2020 and 2021, the pair often caught the eye – a run of three consecutive podiums in Estonia, Belgium and Finland enough to convince M-Sport Ford to bring them in to lead the team for 2022.
Of all the 13 WRC podiums Nagle has had and not stood on the top step, it’s that first event in a Puma Rally1 – third on the Monte Carlo Rally – that stands out the most.
“Outside all my wins, the podium in Monte Carlo with the two Sébs is my favorite,” he said.
“Wins are wins, but for second and third places, to stand in the Casino Square in Monte this year with the two greatest drivers of all time, and there’s two Irishmen sitting there beside them, it’s something for the grandchildren.”
Truthfully, Nagle’s entire WRC career is fit for story-telling. Just a normal lad from Killarney, passion, grit and determination brought him to the forefront of the WRC and some of the best seats in the house.
“I always had a passion for the sport, and I always wanted to get to the top. I went chasing the dream for a young fella, and I’ve lived the dream. And there’s not many people that can say that.
“It’s been a hard road, it’s been a roller-coaster, really. My career has had massive highs and I’ve had I’d say a fair bad lows as well.
“But the memories I have, and the friends I’ve gained, it’s incredible what I’ve got out of the sport outside of the results.”
Everyone at DirtFish is sad to see Nagle go, but wishes him all the best for the future – whatever that may hold.
Something with an engine, we’d bet.