The FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) made its second visit to Croatia last week (April 21-24), bringing with it another nail-biting battle to the very last corner. Daniel Šaškin, the President of the Organising Committee, reflects on another well-received event for the world’s top rally teams and how the Zagreb-based event has chimed with fans across Croatia and Europe.
You said after the first WRC event in Croatia last year that some improvements were needed, are you satisfied with how the event has progressed in the last 12 months?
“I am the type of guy who is never 100 per cent satisfied, there are always things we can improve, but this year we delivered quite an interesting race and almost everything was done like it should be. We are still learning, the WRC is such a big event and many people who work and help us are still learning so we should always aim to improve more, every year. We can do even better. We have plenty of ideas to develop.”
Very few rallies have produced a finish as close as the 0.6-second margin of victory last year, and victory was snatched again with a lead change on the final stage this year. As a competition, you must be happy with the way that the Croatia Rally has delivered these outstanding contests?
“I have to be frank: it was actually lucky for us that the rain shower on Sunday saw Ott Tänak gamble with tyres and that really made the last day come alive. The stages are very demanding, the asphalt is very different to anywhere else in the world. Michèle Mouton, the FIA Safety Delegate, said that the first special stage, with the hairpin going uphill, had basically every asphalt challenge in the WRC in one place on one stage. You have fast, flat parts then you go uphill, the road narrows, you’re in the woods, you’re coming fast downhill and all the time the types of asphalt are changing. It is very, very demanding for the teams when each section of the stage needs a different approach. Fortunately, that is a challenge that the teams seem to enjoy for the most part.”
Tyres were a major factor this year, not only in terms of the choices that the teams made but also in terms of damage. There were some punctures so is that something you want to address for 2023?
“With the type of roads that we have here there is a lot of opportunity to cut the corners, but there is risk of steps which are there for drainage which can cause punctures. That is what happened most of the time. If the weight of the car is on the inside of the corner but sliding to the outside and it has to then go over this step back up to the asphalt then it snaps the tyre, basically.”
As a competitor yourself in many international rallies, would you be tempted to take the risk of a cut or would discretion be the better part of valour?
“What this year’s winner Kalle Rovanperä did was drive it like a Scandinavian rally – a gravel rally almost. You have to anticipate the next corner while you drive the last one. That’s why he was so fast because he anticipated the next corner every time and, yes, it was risky. He suffered a puncture which cost one minute on the penultimate day that reignited the lead battle, but he managed to deliver a fantastic performance. Honestly, I think he might be another great world champion like Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier in recent years, winning many titles. But to be fair all of the guys drove a great rally, and we were even able to see WRC2 cars in the top three times overall and this didn’t happen for a long time in the WRC. Even if the weather had been warm and sunny like in 2021, the stage results would still have been like this. And yes, it’s difficult and sometimes luck is not with you and you get a puncture. But all those guys who were on the podium worked so hard to get there and they were so happy to get there, rightfully proud of themselves, and that says a lot.”
The team principals and drivers in the WRC have heaped praise upon the running of Croatia Rally, what does this level of success in the eyes of the sport’s professionals mean to you?
“We’ve been working on this project for a long time and we have implemented the knowledge of a lot of people and 50 years of rallying in Croatia, so we knew that it would be a challenging rally for the teams and for us. We want Croatia Rally to be a challenge that the teams enjoy accepting, and of course the weather was crazy this year with rain, fog and sunshine changing all the time so to come through such a tough event and hear that is encouraging.”
On your WRC debut last year, Croatia Rally had to be put together in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, was it a little easier for you this time in that respect?
“We were fortunate that the local authorities changed the rules relating to COVID-19 two weeks before the event so that the requirement now for masks and proof of negative tests is only needed to enter places like hospitals and care homes. For a sporting event, outdoors in the countryside, we were able to work on the basis that everything was going to be fine. We had great co-operation with the local authorities and health councils to achieve it.”
It’s only the second year of the WRC being in Croatia but motorsport has a much longer story here, does that culture help to get support behind the event?
“Well, we found out that the first rally to be held in Croatia was actually in 1902, when we were within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That rally actually ran from Nica to Opatija, which is about 30 kilometres from one our stages this year, so we go back a long time. There are some gaps in the story from wars and problems because we are a small country and whatever is going on in the world, we tend to feel it first. That’s because we are just four million people. But there is a lot of passion for sport, even when we are in a time of crisis.”
You said that you were going to change some aspects of the 2021 event for this year, were you happy with the changes and will they be carried forward to next year?
“It’s a compromise between our partners and the rally itself because with the organisation growing – we now have 10 people working full time all year on this project and another 15 or 16 working as a second job – we need to find more investment. Our idea was to use three or four national rallies and combine them into the WRC Croatia Rally so we went to five different counties. This made some of the stages quite far away from Zagreb, but the original idea was to have another stage in between. Another idea was to use the highway to reduce the traffic jams for fans and to keep the rally running smoothly on time. And we needed that because the police have informed us that there were 70,000 people on the final stage of the rally, and on all the rally we are talking about not less than 400,000 people on all stages even when the weather was really cold and wet in some parts of the day.”
Another thing that the WRC and the competitors picked up on was that despite so many spectators there were no problems at all in terms of crowd control, stage delays or cancellations and that there was an incredible atmosphere. How did you manage to get that level of co-operation from 400,000 people?
“We have been working on that all year, telling fans to listen to the marshals, take care to keep the woods and roads clean, to pick up their garbage. We had a campaign to say: ‘Don’t be the one…’ you know? Don’t be the one who spoils it. Enjoy the occasion but be responsible. Let’s keep WRC in Croatia. But, of course, there were fans who travelled here from across Europe and some from all around the world. And, yes, there were some fans who didn’t listen too much but on every stage we had a minibus with 25 security people, so where we saw there may be problems we had more people there.”
What’s been the reaction of Zagreb and the communities where Croatia Rally passes through and where the fans and international visitors come for the event, are they very supportive?
“The reactions are fantastic, we’ve had hundreds of emails from people saying ‘thank you for bringing the world to us finally…’ There are parts of this country where really nothing has happened since the war to promote them internationally, and we have all this heritage, the castles, the countryside. This was always a part of Europe that was really rich in life and culture before the Ottoman empire and throughout our history we are a proud people who love our country. So people are really happy to see people and, I believe, the family whose garden Adrien Fourmaux crashed into took him in and hugged him and fed him. He couldn’t believe that he had destroyed their yard but was welcome in their house, but they just said: “it’s going to be alright”! I think it’s clear that everyone here wants the event to stay for a long time, which makes things very easy for us. If the WRC and the FIA wants to stay in Croatia for some more years then it will really help the tourism side and the economic side.”
Your organisation team has a lot of experience in rallying but this year more Croatian sports bodies have become involved, right?
“Oh yes! Almost all of the Croatian rally guys that are not driving anymore are involved in the organisation. A lot of them, a lot of them are my friends from the Croatian Rally Championship, the European Rally Championship and even some from the Dakar. Between us we have experience of what really works at events around Europe and around the world and from that a real vision of what the best events should look like. We also have outside help but top level organisers, so the guys who organise the ski slalom events in Zagreb came to help us out, also the guys from the Cro Race cicycling event. We are aware that we are a small organisation but now basically we have five or six major sporting events in Croatia and we work together, offer support, bringing more knowledge and experience to each of those areas where we can help each other which makes us stronger and brings new perspective and fresh brains to the problems.”
How do you see the future of rallying in Croatia now that you are fast becoming established within the WRC?
“Our national rally championship, to be honest, at the moment is at a really low point. We need to rebuild it again and we are trying to organise a Junior Cup event so that in a year or two we might have a driver in the Junior WRC. As far as the organisation goes, we have 23 or 26 special stages in Croatia so we can move around the country – we can almost have a different rally every year. It’s very tempting to do that, to create something unique each year, but probably the TV guys and the teams would want to kill us! They obviously have to do so much preparation for the competition and for the presentation worldwide but we could, at least potentially, completely change the character of the stages each year. I think we will just try to keep things fresh and to do our best to carry on our unpredictable events and very close finishes that we have seen in 2021 and 2022.”
Croatia has become famous for its coastal areas, for filming the likes of Game of Thrones, and now you have shown the world a very different part of the country to great effect through the rally. Are there more hidden treasures – castles, villages, countryside – around some of these other stages that we may visit in future?
“Absolutely yes. That’s why we enjoy such a fantastic relationship with WRC Promoter because obviously they want a rally that looks good, and we are lucky to have so much to work with in Croatia. In the beginning they had to believe in us, people that they had never met before, to deliver that. I’m really so grateful that they gave us the opportunity, they believed us, and began this story to where we are now. I am sure that there is more we can show, there are stages in the mountains and valleys and also over on the coast. Those stages are also really challenging on a sporting side, and I think in terms of spectacle and beauty we still have some aces to play that’s for sure. But we will keep Croatia Rally recognisable and build on the success that we see now.”
You achieved a dream in 2021 to bring the WRC to Croatia. Now that it is an established event, what are the big dreams that remain in how it develops?
“We still don’t have the fan experience that perhaps we should. When you look at how you improve that, you then have to ask whether it is better to just make a blanket charge of €5-10 for all spectator areas, or whether just to charge for the areas with parking, in order to make that happen. We need money to invest in somewhere that the fans can gather and call their own. Do we look at creating VIP areas with tents and hospitality for sponsors and businesses to come? I think we won’t have tents for two or three years, but we must ask ourselves what can we do to make the rally feel more special to people. That’s the big question to me. The sport part is good, but we need more sponsors, we need to get stronger and we want to make the fans feel that they are coming to a truly special event.”
What’s the most important thing for you to have come from Croatia Rally this year?
“Most of all I have to say a big, big thank you to almost 2,000 people who were working on this project. This is a big team, but without them it wouldn’t be possible and 500 of these people were volunteers. They were the heroes giving four or five days to us in exchange just for some sandwiches. When I think of them I could cry with gratitude. To everyone, our volunteers, our team, our partners, I can only give sincere thanks. ‘Chapeau’ to all of them, I believe that we can call 2022 a job well done. And next week, we will start to look forward to 2023.”