After hosting the FIA World Rally Championship for the third time last weekend (20-23 April), Daniel Šaškin, the Organising Committee President, looks back on the latest edition of the Zagreb-based event and his thoughts for 2024 and beyond.
How satisfied were you with what you and your team achieved during the third running of the WRC-counting Croatia Rally?
“It’s important to firstly say that the tragedy that happened the week before the rally with the passing of Craig Breen really shook us up very, very much. For a couple of days, we were not sure what we should do but, in the end, everything came out quite well if we look at the bigger picture of what was achieved. At the point following the accident, just as we were finishing the final stages of the organisation, it was really a shock and of course the family of Craig was very much in our thoughts. We did actually think about moving the rally to the autumn or stopping it altogether, a lot of thoughts came to our mind. But, in the end, we were helped very much by the FIA and WRC Promoter and we agreed with Hyundai Motorsport to carry on. As I said in an interview on Croatian television, sport is beautiful and brutal from time to time, as is life. As Craig said, no one of us knows how much time we get on this planet so we wanted to leave something behind that we can be proud of. That’s why we carried on.”
There were a few small changes to the route for this year, including the Ravna Gora - Skrad stage, which actually played quite a decisive role in the outcome of the rally. Were you satisfied with the changes?
“Well firstly I am so sorry for Thierry Neuville because he crashed on the new stage and I thought he could win the rally, especially racing for his team-mate. I don’t know if I should say this, but I was cheering for him, as were a lot of people, and I was really sorry when he went off the road and that he was unlucky because in that corner there was a concrete block in the grass. If it wasn’t there maybe he would lose a couple of seconds and go on with no problem. But Elfyn Evans was the second driver I was cheering for after he was so close to victory in 2021. It was his revenge after he was waiting for two years. And he was a close friend of Craig, as was his co-driver.”
What changes are you planning for next year’s Croatia Rally?
“As an ex-rally driver I don’t think it’s too clever to change a lot, maybe a special stage or two each year, maybe put some old ones form the first edition back in and stuff like that. But as long as we are staying in Zagreb and the surroundings this route is an ideal strategy for us. We don’t give a lot of work to the teams, nobody should complain, and we keep the race to be difficult and challenging but, at the same time, the teams and drivers know what they can expect from the rally. They know it’s a very difficult and tough rally because of the surface, a lot of changes to the asphalt and different types of asphalt. We don’t want to put too much ‘don’t cuts’ so we have some gravel on the road in some places and that makes the rally challenging but not too challenging.”
How important is it for the Croatia Rally to maintain its unique challenge?
“I remember many people from around the world at the very beginning were asking what was the rally like, does it look like Germany, Spain, Italy? But I said none of those events and that people should come and see and then tell me how it looks like! It’s very important our rally is unique and everybody recognises the fact it is a challenging rally.”
Would it be possible to start the rally in the centre of Zagreb?
“It’s not something we are thinking of doing at this point. We had a story on 1 April and received a lot of calls after we said we would do a special stage in Zagreb. It is a good idea but we would need more partners for that because that would be very expensive.”
There was a huge turnout from the fans once again. That must be very satisfying, right?
“The police said more than 400,000 people over four days came to watch the rally, which is incredible. On the shakedown we had 25,000 people and for the Power Stage we had 70,000. This was really good and we had at least 40 per cent of those coming from outside Croatia, Czech people, people from Belgium, England, Scandinavian people, they came from all over Europe and all over the world. You could see flags from so many countries and we also had people visiting from Africa, Japan, everywhere. We also had volunteers from India, China, Japan, South America and we supported them with their expenses, we always do this.”
How many volunteers supported the event?
“We had a little more than 2000 people altogether with the police and all the rescue teams. I can only kneel down and say thank you to them.”
Are there any definite plans for next year in terms of changes?
“There is an idea and a possibility to move the rally to the coast but I think we would need some more time for that. Probably in 2024 the rally will happen in Zagreb again and that is, of course, very good. The date is fantastic for us, it’s spring, we had rain last year and just a few drops this year but it makes the rally more challenging and interesting. Of course when we had sunny days like this year we are going to have hundreds and thousands of people. But also last year we had 310,000 people and it was full raining for half the rally. People are really into it, coming from all over the place, getting wet and getting freezing – on Platak this year where we had three degrees centigrade only but lots of people. It’s also very challenging for the cars and the strategy for the tyres. It’s impossible to have a perfect strategy because you are carrying two tyres only. A lot of people ask why we move the stages so far away. But the main thing is because of the big number of people. If we had the special stages close to each other and people started moving from stage one to three or stage two to four then you have traffic jams and then you don’t have the rally. I know some people don’t like this kind of idea but from my point of view it’s the only way we can do the rally and to be sure the cars are going to be on time for the start of every special stage, which is what we achieved this year.”