Before this season of the WRC, Mads Østberg suddenly found himself without a codriver after longtime partner Jonas Andersson left to drive with Pontus Tidemand. Speculations started and a lot of names were dropped into the mix, but Østberg didn’t look further than to his WRC rival Andreas Mikkelsen.
For those not familiar with rally, you will need to know that co-drivers are very important. A top level rally driver spends more time with their co-driver than their significant other. Most of them stay together for most of their careers, as the partnership inside the car is one of the most important aspects in rallying. Therefore it was a bit of a surprise to everyone when Jonas Andersson, the co-driver of the experienced-yet-young rally driver Mads Østberg, left for EVEN Management and Pontus Tidemand just after Østberg announced his return to M-Sport. The same EVEN Management that has Andreas Mikkelsen (among others) in their stable. When I say everyone was surprised, that includes Østberg himself. The hunt for a new top co-driver now began, preferably one that spoke Norwegian or Swedish.
This was just after the 2015 WRC season, and veteran co-driver Ola Fløene was on holiday at Gran Canaria. Fløene is one of the most experienced in the sport, having been active since 1988 and competing in the passenger seat of several drivers. His most recent ride (and the driver he’d sat with during the 2015 WRC season) was VW-pilot Andreas Mikkelsen. During the season the pair had scored their first WRC win at Corsica. Before that they were crowned IRC champions twice, and while Mikkelsen briefly paired up with Mikko Markkula, Fløene won the JWRC with Pontus Tidemand. Another driver Fløene has experience with is Morten Østberg, the father of Mads. The pair remains good friends to this day, and until last fall usually called each other two times a year. As it happens, Morten Østberg was also on holiday at the same island, and they decided to eat dinner together. This was the weekend before the M-Sport announcement, and though Fløene suspected that Mads were going back to driving a Ford, nothing was mentioned by his father.
Next wednesday Fløene found three unanswered phone calls from Morten Østberg, and called him back. “We have a problem!”, Morten said instantly and informed Fløene about the situation. Ola had originally made plans to drive with Andreas Mikkelsen in 2016, most likely his last year in the WRC since Mikkelsen wanted a more long term partnership with Anders Jæger. Fløene turned down the offer, thinking he was satisfied with the deal he already had. That was until later that night when he was visiting a friend, and the friend’s wife said:
Ola, you don’t want to stop doing this! Now you have the opportunity to continue with rallying, so you have to consider this offer!
Driving back home, Ola called Morten Østberg and said he wanted to talk about his offer. It was tough though, as he would leave a team that had finished on the podium 13 times in less than two seasons. Even if the passion to achieve more good results was stronger than the bond to Mikkelsen, it was hard to let go:
It wasn’t easy to make that phonecall (to Erik Veiby, their manager). It is easier to end a relationship with a beautiful woman than with a really good driver.
Anders Jæger, childhood friend and now co-driver of Andreas Mikkelsen, had been training with Junior WRC driver Ole Christian Veiby with a goal of joining Mikkelsen in 2017. That was the deal from day 1, and both Fløene and Mikkelsen knew that. After a conversation with Mads Østberg, Fløene knew was convinced that that was a better future. A WRC career after 2016. Quite interesting when you know that Mikkelsen and Østberg has had a rally rivalry for almost 10 years. A rivalry that was complete in 2008 when Østberg won the Norwegian Championship on equal points with Mikkelsen, but with better stage results. Lately the joke has been that the World Championship has become the Norwegian championship, because of the good overall results from Mikkelsen and Østberg.
Andreas Mikkelsen would of course continue in the WRC with VW, but now he had to chose between promoting Anders Jæger one year early or gamble with a new co-driver. This was also a gamble in the sense that Jæger was chosen as a future co-driver because of his personality and character, and not because of his experience as a top level co-driver. This is (according to Mikkelsen) a first in top level rallying. Mikkelsen and EVEN Management chose the first option, and the crew delivered second place in their first event: Monte Carlo. Probably one of the trickiest rallies out there. It was such an achievement that Ola Fløene had to call Jæger to congratulate! “I think I know what they have done, but I’d like to know how many hours they’ve used!”, Fløene says.
After four rounds of the WRC the duo of Mads Østberg and Ola Fløene is third in the championship, only behind the nearly unbeatable Sebastien Ogier and the up-and-coming Hayden Paddon. Andreas Mikkelsen and Anders Jæger is just behind in fourth. Ola Fløene is certain that either Mads Østberg or Andreas Mikkelsen will become world rally champion one day, but it is impossible to tell which one of them. Certainly there are several twists and turns left in their careers, even if the co-driver part is sorted out now. However, the situation was best described by motorsport journalist Neil Cole.
This article is based on an interview done by the Norwegian motorsport podcast Radio Motor earlier this year. Rundkjøring is Norwegian for roundabout.