They say laughter is the best medicine. Jan Černý’s laughter down the phone when DirtFish calls to talk about Rally Spain doesn’t do anything to dispel that theory.
Losing a world title is never a nice feeling. Both Černý and Lauri Joona were acutely aware that it could be on the horizon for them – that heading home from Salou, the season-long effort they had put in might not culminate in the WRC3 title they were shooting for.
But there’s disappointment, and then there’s pain. To lose a winner-takes-all finale by nine seconds after incurring a 10-second time penalty was a truly cruel way for Černý’s World Rally Championship season to end.
After the chuckling, the first words Černý can muster are: “S*** happened.”
The irony was that things started so well as Černý dominated the opening stage to carve open a 16.1-second advantage over Joona. But looking back, he believes this may have been a poisoned chalice.
“The conditions were quite tricky, a lot of mud and slippy conditions and wet and dry and there was like a mix of everything and the stage was quite fast, more like the stages in Czech Republic,” Černý explained.
“I pushed quite hard so it was a good time and I enjoyed the stage, but after the first stage I think I changed my mind a little bit and I care a little bit more about the punctures, I started to think more and it was maybe the biggest mistake of the rally.”
That’s quite the admission given what would soon unfold, but it’s certainly true that once in that sort of position, suddenly there is something to protect, something to lose, and mentally that does play its part. By lunchtime service Černý’s advantage had been reduced to 6.6s.
All he had to do was be ahead of Joona though and, given it was just Friday morning, there weren’t any alarm bells ringing yet. But the afternoon wouldn’t go to plan either, and Joona wouldn’t just take the lead, he’d streak 19.7s clear.
“For the second pass we chose really bad tires because I had the information that there would be some rain but it was completely dry, and we went on four soft and two hard,” said Černý.
“There was one stage where at the start-line we expected rain so we put the softest tires for the whole car and it was completely dry so we lost a lot of time – that was like mistake number two!
“And then also they canceled some stages and they give us not the best times. We can do nothing with this but we lost a few seconds there, and finally the penalty, the 10s we got before the stage in Salou…”
Quite incredibly, just one tenth of a second split the two contenders ahead of Saturday’s final test on the beachfront. Černý had managed to erode Joona’s advantage over Saturday morning as Joona broke a driveshaft, but it was Joona that still led ahead of SS15.
But then the title picture took a twist as Černý arrived at the time control for the Salou stage one minute late – an automatic 10s time penalty.
“We had the time OK, everything was prepared, the car was prepared, tires were prepared, everything was fine, we were just waiting one more minute so our fault, our mistake,” he confessed.
“It was the last time control before the stage so it was quite difficult to go fast through the stage, but we were fast. I think we were 2.5s faster than Joona but I knew it’s going to be a difficult day after.”
Černý admitted he was “angry” throughout the spectator stage, but that 2.5s time gain over that short 1.3-mile stage didn’t mean anything in terms of the final day as time gaps are often exaggerated on spectator tests.
The job was theoretically doable though with 7.5s to make up over four stages, but with both drivers pushing to the max with the WRC3 title on the line, it was always going to be a big ask.
“I knew I had to push like hell. On the first two stages I was too fast everywhere and I had some moments and sometimes you push over the limit and it’s slower.
“I went quite OK on the second pass and it was much faster, so maybe if I started a little bit more calm and just went fast but not like 110% which I did, maybe there was a chance but after the first two stages I knew that it’s almost lost.
“I feel I pushed and I did everything I could but… you know…”
The laughter then returned as Černý attempted to mask the pain, but we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t ask. How did that feel arriving at the end of the final stage, knowing that had the 10s penalty been scrubbed, he would have won?
The tone suddenly shifted to something far more serious: “It’s terrible, it’s really awful,” said Černý.
“You know without [my] 10s [penalty] maybe he would go faster, but there was so much pressure after these 10s because I knew that I have to do like… for me, in my mind, I either win or lose everything.
“So I went on the limit all the time and to lose it by this penalty is quite sad but maybe sometimes it’s part of the game to lose like this and I hope it makes me stronger.
“I learned a lot from this race, and I knew I could be better but hopefully I will be better next time.”
Nothing about Černý’s tale of heartbreak should detract from Joona’s achievement. He overcame his own tire choice dilemmas and of course that driveshaft problem, and once he’d been given a breather courtesy of Černý’s penalty he defended it for his life to seal an extremely well-earned world title.
But where there’s a winner there unfortunately always has to be a loser, and in this instance, as a neutral, it’s impossible not to really feel for the loser.
“The first two or three days [after] were quite difficult but I think there is more positives than negatives after this weekend because I showed the speed and we were so close and without the penalty… for myself, I am the winner,” Černý said.
“I beat myself. That’s super cool and there are more positives than negatives.
“Yeah I am a bit sad because of the result and my sponsors and my family and it would be nice to be world champion, but one day I hope.”