Remembering Philippe Bugalski: Citroën’s original WRC hero

Today marks the 10th anniversary since we lost a charismatic, loveable driver who took the late 90s WRC by storm


A magician. A fantastic guy. A mentor. These are the words of Thierry Neuville who remembers Phillipe Bugalski – Citroën’s very first World Rally Championship winner who viewed Neuville as “probably the son he never has had”.

Bugalski passed away on this very date (August 10) 10 years ago, aged 49, after a fall. He was survived by his wife and two daughters.

The news of his passing sent huge shock waves through the entire WRC community at the time, with nine-time world champion Sébastien Loeb labelling him “incredibly special” and somebody “we will all miss”.

But Neuville, who back then was contesting his very first full season in the WRC with the Citroën Junior Team, had an even deeper connection with Bugalski who massively influenced Neuville’s early rallying career.


“He was some kind of a mentor for me,” Neuville told DirtFish.

“He was the one who got me into the French championship, who got me into the PSA Group at that time doing all the developments for the DS3 R3, C3 R2 Max and further doing some rallies as well for Citroën Customer Racing.

“Yeah, we had a great relationship.”

Bugalski stopped competing professionally at the end of 2003, bowing out with 10th place on Rally Spain in a works Xsara WRC. But Bugalski, nicknamed ‘Le Petit Bug’, kept close ties with Citroën and remained a valued test and development driver for the team that dominated the 2000s.

1999 Tour de Corseworld wide copyright: McKlein

It was those connections that allowed Bugalski to accelerate Neuville’s career. Neuville’s first rally was in 2007 in his own Opel Corsa, but by 2009 he was driving a C2 R2 Max all over Europe.

And a year later, Neuville progressed into a Peugeot 207 S2000 in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge alongside a JWRC campaign in a C2 S1600 for the team Bugalski managed, Automeca (below).

“He was calling me every day,” Neuville remembered. “I was probably the son he never has had. It was a great relationship.

“Fantastic guy, funny guy as well. Yeah, a magician.”


Bugalski was ultimately correct to have such faith in Neuville who has since gone on to claim 15 victories in the WRC and finished runner-up in the championship some five times.

Neuville has never forgotten the help and support that Bugalski provided. Emotionally, he dedicated his second WRC win to his mentor as that year’s Rally Italy concluded on what would have been Bugalski’s 53rd birthday – June 12.

And Neuville’s personal marketing logo is a subtle homage to Bugalski too. The logo for Automeca incorporates the letters ‘A’ and ‘M’ in a shape that resembles a dog and proved a big inspiration for Neuville’s own emblem.


“I decided to use the ‘T’ and ‘N’ from my names to develop something that looks similar,” Neuville told back in 2014.

It has since evolved over the years to incorporate Neuville’s race number #11, looking even more akin to Automeca’s logo.

“This logo is a way of remembering the great times I had with Philippe.”

Bugalski was far more than just a key figure in Neuville’s rise to WRC stardom though. He was an extremely talented driver in his own right.

His driving career began as a fresh-faced 19-year-old behind the wheel of a humble Volkswagen Golf GTI but he soon made the switch to drive Renaults.

910428TdC Bugalski 01

Success in the French Rally Championship, winning his class in 1991 coupled with a fine eighth overall and first in class on the Tour de Corse, began to attract attention and Bugalski earned his first big break in 1992 – signed by Jolly Club to compete in three rounds of the WRC with a semi-works Lancia Delta Integrale in full, pukka Martini colors.

Alongside Denis Giraudet, Bugalski scored a fine fifth on the Monte and an incredible third in Corsica (pictured above) ahead of that year’s world champion Carlos Sainz. He also took on Finland and claimed a respectable ninth given his penchant for the black stuff after gravel – but for 1993 he was dropped and disappeared from global attention.

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Instead, he went back to France, and it was here he really began to build his legend. Initially sticking with a private Delta for 1993 with new co-driver Thierry Renaud, Renault snapped him up as a works driver for 1994 and Bugalski began to show the world his potential.

Armed with a Clio Williams and later the Clio Maxi, the results really started to flow before they were tragically interrupted on the 1995 Rallye Grasse-Alpin where a fiery accident into a tree cost Renaud his life.

Showing his true strength of character, Bugalski was competing just one month later and won the 2-Liter WRC class on the Tour de Corse in ninth overall. Corsica was a kind event to Bugalski, who won the rally outright one year later in the new Renault Maxi Mégane – defeating Gilles Panizzi’s Peugeot 306 Maxi by over two minutes in what was one of his finest ever victories.

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Poignantly he and Jean-Paul Chiaroni, the co-driver who would stick with Bugalski for the rest of his career, won Rallye Grasse – Alpin in 1996 too before a mixed 1997 season saw Bugalski miss out on the French title yet again.

But after Renault pulled out at the end of the ’97 season a new home awaited Bugalski: Citroën. Legendary team principal and former co-driver Guy Fréquelin had spotted Le Petit Bug’s potential and hired him primarily to be a test driver as the intensity of Citroën’s rallying commitment grew.

However, Bugalski’s talent wouldn’t be consigned to the test track – the new Xsara Kit Car needed to prove itself on its native stages. And that’s exactly what it did.

The Bugalski-Xsara combination was practically unbeatable and Bugalski waltzed to his maiden French Rally Championship title in 1998 ahead of Simon-Jean Joseph’s four-wheel-drive Subaru.

The winning feeling would remain in the Bugalski camp for a while as an even more dominant campaign was to follow in 1999 where Bugalski won 10 of the 13 rallies he started that year.

Incredibly, two of those starts were in the WRC. Bugalski and Citroën put some serious noses out of joint with overall victory on Rally Spain – a result that infuriated the works teams whose World Rally Cars couldn’t live with the equally powerful yet lighter front-wheel-drive Formula 2 machines.

That distaste only grew stronger when Bugalski repeated the trick on the Tour de Corse a few weeks later in what was a Citroën 1-2 with team-mate Jesús Puras second. It’s little wonder Bugalski considered the Xsara Kit Car the favorite car he drove throughout his career.

990419E Bugalski 1

He could well have completed the set and added a Sanremo win to his collection too had wet conditions on the second day not counted against his two-wheel-drive Xsara dropped him from fourth to 11th. It prompted a stunning charge back up the field, only for Bugalski to crash on the final stage in his efforts to catch back time.

In 2000 Bugalski would once again win the French championship but this time in a different car: the Xsara T4. This was a four-wheel-drive machine that eventually became the Xsara WRC once Citroën had PSA Group approval to go toe-to-toe with stablemate Peugeot.

Bugalski was still present on WRC events though, driving a Saxo Kit Car before the Xsara WRC he had spent hours upon hours helping develop was finally ready for its debut on Rally Spain, where Bugalski was eighth. Ironically, despite his asphalt prowess, Bugalski’s best WRC result that season was sixth on the Acropolis.

2000 Acropolis Rally world wide copyright: McKlein

Generally though, Bugalski was utilized as an asphalt ace and 2002 yielded five WRC appearances all on the black stuff – Monte Carlo, Spain, Corsica, Germany and Sanremo. But crashes in Germany – a year later from a victory in 2001 before it joined the world championship – and Sanremo were ill-timed given Citroën was needing to make driver decisions for its first full season in the WRC in 2003.

In the end Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae were both poached from Ford to partner emerging superstar Sébastien Loeb and Bugalski was given just a part program; identical to 2002 except without the Monte.

Rally Spain 2003 marked the end of Bugalski’s career as a professional rally at the age of 40, but he was far from done with rallying itself as he competed in historic events and was trusted by Citroën to shakedown World Rally Cars and develop new two-wheel-drive models.

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Bugalski was an intrinsic part of the WRC’s most successful ever team and forever remained part of the family such was his professionalism and loving personality. He touched Renault deeply too, as proved by the launch of the Philippe Bugalski Challenge for iconic front-wheel-drive Renaults in the French championship last year.

A magician. A fantastic guy. A mentor. Thierry Neuville got it spot on.

David Evans’ memories

I don’t remember the year, but I do remember the moment. It was the 2000s in Spain. My colleague Anthony Peacock and I were winding our way back up the motorway from stages around Tarragona to service in Lloret de Mar.

Typically, the rush hour traffic around Barcelona was miserably heavy. Out of nowhere a Citroën Xsara (might have been the WRC or the Kit Car) arrived in the rear-view mirror.

This was a time when not everybody had xenon out front and the headlights (along with the transmission chatter, big wing and general rally car on the road madness) made the point: the car was coming through.

Bugalski species E02

Two or three maneuvers later and the red car arrived alongside us.

Good evening, Philippe Bugalski.

This was one of those impressions which lasted forever. He looked so cool. Like, proper cool. Like Steve McQueen flicking the vees to his rival in Le Mans. That cool.

Bug’s window was down, his left arm was out taking in the autumnal breeze – overall sleeve rolled up and driving glove rolled down.

The balaclava was draped over the handbrake.

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Briefly alongside us, the Xsara eased ahead, decisively slicing its way through the traffic, surfing a wave of top-gear torque. It was a nothing moment that stayed with Anthony and I forever.

Oddly, that’s a moment of Bugalski that I remember more than the time I sat alongside him at a test. That would, invariably, have been utterly awesome.

More than the ride, which came in Greece on an Acropolis test, I was struck by what a genuinely lovely fella he was. One of the absolute good guys. We struggled a touch on the language front, but he was the best of things: an everyday superstar.

Cool as my memories of Philippe are, they’re nothing on the recollections of Robert Reid. Reidy has always had the ability to trump me on stories – it comes with being a world champion.

His memory was similarly Spanish.

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“Richard and I were driving back up to Lloret,” said Reid, “when we came to one of the many péages. We drove into it at the same time as Philippe’s Citroën.

“The barrier went up and I wondered why we hadn’t gone. I looked up and saw Richard and Philippe grinning at each other. They both nodded and both cars were launched off the line.

“Nothing silly, just a bit of fun. But cool.”

That was Le Petit Bug. Much missed and a very lovely bloke.