There aren’t many variables that remain constant for over 15 years in the World Rally Championship.
But Mads Østberg had been one of them. For every year since 2006, the Norwegian had been there for at least three rallies each season – but often a full 13.
That was until 2022. This year Østberg was entirely absent from the WRC. But that doesn’t sadden him, not even slightly.
“It’s been a good season and it’s been an enjoyable one as well for me, with a little bit less pressure and doing a bit more just how I feel and how I want, and sometimes that can be good as well. It’s been a really good year,” he tells DirtFish.
The results certainly back Østberg up.
Winner on nine of the 14 rallies he entered this year in five different countries (and he led the Qatar International Rally before a water leak forced him out), Østberg was undefeated in the Hungarian championship all year and only once did he make the end of an event and not win it.
That’s a vein of form so good it could be tempting to suggest that Østberg would’ve been an incredibly strong contender for the WRC2 title.
And who, or what, is to say that he couldn’t? The WRC certainly wouldn’t have said no to another ex-factory driver and former round winner joining the Rally2 battle this year.
Østberg was conspicuous by his absence, but not because he’d toiled and toiled and just not been able to find the budget to compete. It was all deliberate, all on purpose. Østberg didn’t want to be in the WRC in 2022.
“There were no plans for WRC at the beginning of the year and I wasn’t really looking for it either through the year, to be honest,” he admits. “I stay focused on other things and I think for many reasons it was a good way to do it.
“I was looking for other options. Like I ended up going to Qatar, which I think was also probably one of the best rallies I did all season, where we came there and were fighting with Nasser [Al-Attiyah], leading after the first day and so on, on the first attempt on one of these desert rallies.
“It was these types of challenges I was looking for and I had fun and it was also successful, so I think in many ways it was also one of the highlights of the season.”
For the first time in his professional rallying career, Østberg felt a breath of fresh air. Free from doing the same rallies in the same structure; able to plan his own calendar and learn new things.
And perhaps that was a key driver in his sublime performances this year. Make no bones about it, the WRC offers elite level competition, but Østberg has still been swimming with the sharks in 2022.
As a former works WRC driver and a WRC2 champion, he’s had a clear target on his back. He’s the one all the local aces want to take down. But for Østberg to take down the local aces is a mission in itself, given the breadth of experience they all have over him on their respective home patches.
That’s why so many of Østberg’s 2022 drives appear to be run-of-the-mill but are actually exceptional. Take Qatar for example, where on his first ever start in a Škoda he was leading Al-Attiyah – a driver who has only been beaten to a championship on that sort of terrain twice in the past 20 years.
Or his domination of Rally of Nations Guanajuato in March. Yes, it maybe counts as the exception to the rule as Østberg has plenty of Rally México starts to his name, but he absolutely cleaned up and showed Adrien Fourmaux – who was competing in the WRC’s top class in 2022 – a clean pair of heels.
And to not afford any of the Hungarian national drivers a look-in all year requires a serious level of skill.
“To be honest, I’m quite proud of that,” Østberg says. “And like you say for many it looks easy but even if you’re a WRC champion or a WRC driver, coming to local rallies and trying to win them is not easy.
“We’ve seen it many times with different drivers, with Craig Breen, with Thierry Neuville, with a lot of other drivers going on local rallies and get beaten, and it has happened to me as well.
“I know that many of the places they bring me they expect me to win and I sort of tend to use a lot of time trying to explain to everyone that it’s not that easy.
“Even if you bring me locally and expect me to win, it’s hard work and the local knowledge and experience of the local drivers is a big, big key – I think it’s like that everywhere around the world.
“If you take any kind of driver and take them to a national championship it’s not easy, but I think this year I’ve been able to do what it takes to go anywhere in any championship and win it.
“The preparations and the work for the rallies has been, for me, the same as what I always did in the world championship as well.
“I think in many ways it makes me really proud and it’s probably one of the best seasons I’ve ever had.
“It’s been a big challenge and even though looking back on the season on paper it looks easy, I know that every single win was a big effort to make it happen and it was a lot of work to make it happen.
“I can feel very happy about that at the end of the year.”
As with anything, there have been a couple of low points though. Italy proved a slight jinx for Østberg. who won rallies in Hungary, Mexico and Chile but never even led on Italian soil. Engine failure on Rally Sanremo, his first Italian event, was certainly a disappointment was nothing compared to what happened in Como when Østberg had what he describes as a “proper accident”.
“It was raining really, really heavily so I had aquaplaning on a very fast place and just as I was going onto the brakes I was locking up one wheel and I just couldn’t regain the traction,” he remembers.
“We were just sliding along on top and straight into the tree, so it was obviously a scary moment when you lose the control and you know that you can’t really do anything.
“I saw the tree for quite a long time. Probably in real time it’s not so long but as most people know when you crash everything goes really slow motion so it was a few scary seconds of course.
“It was a proper accident no doubt, but I think we learned from it like I always try to do and the things just happened, so it didn’t scare me or frighten me. We were both OK and that was the key thing.”
It’s a testament to his character that three weeks later Østberg was back in a Citroën C3 Rally2, and back winning. But in fitting with his season plan, the experience was something a bit unfamiliar to him – albeit far less pleasing than trying new rallies.
“I’m not so used to crashing, as I have a tendency to finish almost every rally I start so I think it was four years since the last crash, and quite many rallies.”
It’s a habit Østberg won’t want to fall into, and doesn’t look set to. But what about a more fluid rally calendar? Is this a new chapter in 35-year-old Østberg’s career, or just a one-off change to the norm?
Well as you may have already read on DirtFish this week, Østberg is working on a European Rally Championship program for next year. But the key is in the ‘E’. That’s ERC, not WRC.
Why? As he explained, it’s mostly due to a change in his personal circumstances. Østberg is putting his son front and center in his life now that he is divorced, and that therefore influences his season program.
“He is my life – I want to give a lot of priority to him and that’s why I try to adapt my work around him, and not the opposite.”
Perhaps all fathers should do the same, but that does not mean that all fathers would. It’s noble and hugely commendable from Østberg to do that, and effectively sacrifice some more WRC action for himself.
But is that really such a bad thing for Østberg’s career? The ERC is a championship that appears to be growing in momentum and appeal, and in competing there he can be the star of the show – not a subplot winner in another category.
And, once again, it’ll afford Østberg the chance to try something new. He’s appeared in the ERC three times before, winning Rally Hungary in 2021, and done some of next season’s rallies in other championships and classes of cars, but a season-long push will be a fresh challenge for him.
As this year proved, that may well be the best set of circumstances for Østberg to thrive.