The winter of 2018 was one of distinct discontent for Mads Østberg. I’d felt similarly before myself.
Granted, I hadn’t been dropped by Citroën’s World Rally Championship team. But I had once landed 31% in my end of year math paper.
For Mads, it was a meeting with then team principal, Pierre Budar. For my parents, it was a meeting with Mr Harris. Mr Harris informed ma and pa that my services in his top stream were no longer required heading into that particular GCSE season.
Similarly, Budar informed Østberg his services were no longer needed heading into the 2019 season.
Me? I had no choice. I was forced into the arms of a tutor twice a week and ultimately hit 100%. Mads did have a choice. Step back, step down, regroup. Or go home. For good.
Even if you might be struggling, Østberg can see my analogy.
“It’s kind of the same,” he tells DirtFish, “but definitely this was not a nice time. I was not feeling well [with the decision] for a long time. I didn’t know. After so long in the World Rally Championship, to step back to R5 was a big thing. There was definitely this stigma attached to it.
“It took me time to get my head into it, but once I did, I didn’t look back.”
Where I feel I do have an opportunity with a team is in terms of developing a car or bringing experience to a new teamMads Østberg on his hopes of returning to the WRC's top flight
And still he doesn’t. Østberg is only interested in what’s ahead. And what’s ahead hasn’t changed in his mind – he’s still heading back to a full-time drive in the World Rally Championship. That’s why he’s signed to drive and defend his WRC2 title with Citroën for 2021.
“I still want to be back to the top category,” he says. “And I believe it can happen. I have proved already that I can fight with the other [WRC] drivers, I’ve done it before and I can do it again. I still feel fresh and I still feel I am driving really well – actually better than I’ve ever driven.”
Pedaling a Rally2 car can do that for a driver. Shorn of the sort of aero that railroads the cars through the higher-speed corners, a Rally2 motor keeps it real for the driver. Just ask Esapekka Lappi what happens when you pull fifth and forget you don’t have tricks and wings. (If you don’t want to ask Lappi, think back to that monster moment when the right-rear of his Volkswagen Polo R5 slapped an Arctic snowbank at 100mph…)
“I think [driving a Rally2 car] does make you a better driver,” says Ostberg. “You have to carry the speed and work the car harder. It makes you think how to drive the car cleaner and more efficiently. And the competition is so tough in WRC2 now, you have to be perfect in all of the corners.”
He’s not wrong. The competition is tough. Østberg’s fellow Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen has made a near-perfect start to this WRC2 campaign, with a Monte win backed up by a second place (to Lappi) in Finland last month. The upshot of that is that he’s already bagged double the number of points of his nearest full-time WRC2 rival Adrien Fourmaux.
“He is looking strong,” says Østberg. “He has a good car and we have seen his team is strong as well. But I’m not afraid of anybody in WRC2. I’m not afraid of Andreas. He will be hard to beat, but I beat him in 2018, the last time we were both in equal machinery and driving World Rally Cars and I feel comfortable that we will have a good fight this year.
“As well as Andreas, there’s Esapekka if he does more and Adrien Fourmaux. The competition will be high.”
And then there’s the youngster, Oliver Solberg and Hyundai’s all-new i20 N Rally2.
This is an interesting one. A little over a decade ago, it was the now 33-year-old who was knocking on the door of the factory teams, frustrated that some of the old guard had had their chance and the time had come to let the next generation jump aboard.
But now Østberg’s approaching old guard status and Solberg is that next generation. How does that sit?
“I’m not going to fight with Oliver or Kalle [Rovanperä] for a seat,” he says. “Kalle is in and Oliver is in now and he’s not going to go back out and I wouldn’t do anything to stand in their way.
“Where I feel I do have an opportunity with a team is in terms of developing a car or bringing experience to a new team – this is something the younger guys haven’t done already.
“This is my approach. If ever PSA Group wants to come back to the top category then I am ready to help and I can bring big experience. I have taken the C3 Rally2 almost from scratch and now we have a good car and I have shown I can drive and be right at the front in the top category on every surface.”
That good car will be thoroughly tested by Østberg this season and not just in WRC2. He will also be contesting the Hungarian Rally Championship – which came as a curveball communication earlier in the season.
The four-time Norwegian champion will drive a Tagai Racing Technology-run C3 on the largely asphalt series.
“I’m excited about that,” says Østberg. “It’s so good to have the extra seat time. When you look at Andreas’ program, he will have a lot of time in the car and so will we now. It’s good news.
“Like I said earlier, it was difficult at the end of 2018. I felt I had done my job that year. I felt I had done enough to deserve my place [in the C3 WRC] in 2019, but drivers who had done less [than me] got the opportunity. I have no regrets and I don’t feel sorry for myself.
“I have learned so much with the R5 car, learned more on the theory of driving and I’m happy now, really happy. I’m driving a lot and I’m really enjoying what I’m doing. It’s good.”
And back-to-back WRC2 titles would be great, but another title’s not what Mads is all about this year. He’s about matching math results. He’s about getting back into Mr Harris’ top stream.