16 Apr 08
Sebastien Ogier’s arrival in the World Rally Championship came straight out of a Boy’s Own annual. He’d never (ever) competed at this level previously and arrived in Mexico with the full weight of the French Federation Sport Automobile’s expectation on his back. Not much to worry about then, it’s not like the FFSA is an organisation over-burdened with success. Apart from the key role it played in producing the most successful rally driver in the history of the world.
Ogier, however, remained utterly ambivalent about all of this. Yes, there was pressure to succeed and yes, he’d do what he could to fulfil those expectations. His best was all he could do. His best was more than good enough. Rally Mexico was six stages - and the thick end of a day old - before anybody had come close to his pace. Half a minute up at that point, he’d stacked another minute onto that lead 24 hours later. His dream start became a reality. Suddenly, the world was well aware of Sebastien Ogier.
Now, though, the really hard work starts. Now we all know who he is; the world will be watching and fully expecting another towering performance from the Frenchman on the Jordan Rally. And you would have say the door is wide open for him to repeat his win in the Americas. Czech Republic driver Martin Prokop - billed as the J-WRC favourite this season - crashed out eight kilometres into Mexico and isn’t starting in Jordan. So, who else can hold a candle to the second most famous Sebastien in France?
In terms of raw pace, Patrik Sandell would be a safe bet. The 2006 Junior World Rally Champion has speed in spades, but his ageing Renault Clio could peg him back in the Middle East. The official Suzukis of Jaan Molder and Michal Kosciuszko fared well, finishing second and third respectively in Mexico, but given his wealth of experience at this level, more might have been expected from Molder - despite Kosciuszko being two years older than him at 22. At one point in Mexico, Molder’s runners-up spot looked in danger from Kosciuszko; had it not been for a heavy landing on the second day, which damaged the Pole’s engine, those positions might well have been reversed.
Undoubtedly, the Suzuki has the pace to carry the fight to the Citroen and given that this is new territory to all involved, a Kosciuszko versus Ogier battle could be on the cards.
Ireland’s Shaun Gallagher will be looking to make amends for what was a miserable start to his J-WRC campaign in Mexico. The affable Citroen driver struggled with illness as he made the step up to a full-fat C2 Super 1600 after a season in a C2R2. Another driver well worth watching will be Alessandro Bettega. The Italian had hoped to step up to a World Rally Car drive on the back of his sensational debut in the top flight in Corsica last year - where he ran in the points before slipping off the road and recovering to 11th by the end. Unfortunately for him, the necessary sponsorship has not been forthcoming. The frontline WRC’s loss is, however, the J-WRC’s gain: Bettega will drive a Renault Clio R3 - and nobody will be more committed or happier to be out between the trees (or in the desert) than him.