When Paul Nagle drives over the start ramp of this weekend’s Acropolis Rally in Greece it will mark his 100th start in the World Rally Championship.
Greece is one of the most brutal events on the calendar, Nagle and his driver Craig Breen will be put to the test in extreme temperatures that are set to go beyond 30 degrees Celsius.
Despite this being Nagle’s first visit to one of WRC’s founding events in 1973, he remains unphased for the challenge that lies ahead.
After all, 99 World Rally starts is a solid bedrock of experience and the result of one man who followed his childhood dream through all the highs and lows.
Nagle made his WRC debut on the 2004 Rally de Espana Catalunya alongside his friend and neighbour Donie O’Sullivan.
It was an eye-opening experience for the two clubmen from Aghadoe but it set Nagle on a road to world stardom.
Since then he has won five rounds of the World Rally Championship, stood on the podium 18 times and is officially the fastest-ever co-driver over any given special stage in the WRC.
“It was a journey that started in 2004,” says Nagle who recently turned 44. “I knew then where I wanted to be, but I did not how to get there. This is something I chased. 100 starts is a huge milestone, massive highs, massive lows but the highs always outweigh the lows.”
His next big break came in 2007 when Dubliner Gareth MacHale decided he was going to enter the WRC as a privateer.
It did not take long for the Ford Focus-mounted crew to make their mark at the sport’s highest level.
In their second event of the season – Rally Mexico – the pair finished sixth overall and bagged their first-ever WRC points.
In total, they contested eight rounds of the 2007 WRC including events in exotic destinations like Japan and Argentina.
“I did a season and a half with Gareth,” he adds. “We gained lots and lots of experience and I was beginning to establish myself in the World Rally Championship.”
EARLY MEEKE YEARS
When Nagle first teamed up with Tyrone’s Kris Meeke, on the 2007 Ulster International Rally, an event they won, it set them on a road to international rallying stardom.
They made their WRC debut together on the 2007 Irish round of the series.
This event, and the many European Rally Championship successes in between, paved the way for their first full works contract in 2011.
They were signed by the MINI factory effort that was run by the legendary British preparation team Prodrive.
“Our first full factory contract is definitely a career highlight, and a highlight in that time was finishing fourth overall on that year’s Rally GB.”
EARLY BREEN YEARS.
When rising Irish star Craig Breen suffered a personal tragedy at an event in Italy (his co-driver Jaffa Roberts died in a crash) Nagle was drafted into the Waterford man’s team to help him through an emotionally difficult period.
Their first event together was Rally Finland in 2012 and this was followed by France, Spain, and Britain. At the season’s end, Breen was declared the winner of the SWRC, the second division feeder series to the main championship.
“I helped Craig win the championship in what was a very difficult time for him, it was a huge stepping stone in both our careers.”
The following year Nagle was drafted into the Volkswagen World Rally Championship team when Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen’s regular co-driver was unable to compete in Australia and France.
Firies native Richard Browne was one of the German team’s chief engineers and the two Kerry men witnessed a part of motorsport history in France.
“It was great to team up with my neighbour Richard,” adds Paul. “But it was also great to see [teammate] Sebastien Ogier win his first World title.”
Ogier went on to become one of the sport’s all-time greats winning seven more World titles.
For 2014 Meeke and Nagle were selected for a partial programme with Citroen and on their maiden outing for the French team they took a famous third place on Rallye Monte Carlo – their first of 12 podiums together.
“This a huge memory, third on the most famous rally in the world,” adds Nagle.
This and other results, like third place finishes in France, Argentina and Finland led to a full-time programme for 2015.
The pair made Irish motorsport history in April by taking a well-deserved win in Argentina.
“I was glad this was so far away from home, the pressure was huge as every Irish rally fan wanted that first win,” he says, “It took a few days to realise we had won a round of the WRC.”
The following season, 2016, was their best season ever in the WRC. A win in Portugal was backed up by the Holy Grail, first place in Rally Finland and one of only a handful of non-Scandinavian crews to win this event.
“This was Kris’s finest hour, we led from start to finish and even the local fans supported us as it was so unusual. We beat Jari-Matti Latvala [current Toyota team boss] on his home patch,” says Nagle.
They took the victory by 29.1s aboard their Citroën DS3 WRC with a 126.62km/h average speed which remains the fastest rally ever.
A year later they were on the top step again, this time in Mexico, in what has become the most famous rally footage ever.
With a comfortable lead heading into the final stage, their Citroen DS3 left the road and landed in a field full of spectators’ cars. How they got out and equally how they retained the rally lead, remains a mystery.
It is, of course, a massive career highlight for Nagle, but understandably, “one I don’t like talking about,”
Later in 2017, they secured their fifth, and thus far final victory on Rally Spain
This is a rally that is always well-supported by Irish fans as they take in the early Winter sun in the resort town of Salou.
“This was a big occasion, our first win on tarmac, it was almost the full circle, and to see all the Irish flags at the finish, it took me right back to where it all started.”
BREEN PART TWO
Hyundai gave Breen and Nagle a chance in 2019 and for three partial seasons, they finished on the podium five times.
Highlights included second place in Estonia (2020 and 2021) twice and once in Belgium (2021)
“Finishing second to Ott Tanak on his home rally, securing Craig’s first [Hyundai] podium and racing Thierry Neuville [Belgium] in his own backdoor, are big memories,” he says.
The Hyundai years led to a full-time programme with M-Sport Ford for 2022 and their season got off to a perfect start.
Third place on Rallye Monte Carlo, behind the Sebs: Loeb and Ogier, was an unbelievable beginning to their Ford career.
“With 17 world titles between them and two Irish men on the podium with them, it was an amazing feeling, it took a while before that sunk in.” he adds
Another podium in Greece this weekend will be the perfect way to mark his century.
PAUL NAGLE’S CAREER IN NUMBERS
Wins 5 (Argentina (2015), Portugal (2016) Finland, (2016), Mexico (2017) Spain, (2017)
WRC Factory teams 5 (MINI, Volkswagen, Citroen, Hyundai, Ford)
Drivers: 6 (Donie O’Sullivan, Gareth MacHale, Barry Clark, Kris Meeke Andreas Mikkelsen, Craig Breen
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