Friday | 26 Nov 2021

25 Stories: The kid from Gap

Last Sunday, as the curtain started to go down on the World Rally Car era, Sébastien Ogier was once again front stage centre. How did this ski instructor from the French Alps transcend the world of motorsport to become one of its most revered figures of the 21st century?

He’s happy now. The job is done. The job was done last year, but not to the level Sébastien Ogier does jobs. One more year was needed and one more year has been delivered. The 37-year-old can rest easy now. He’s signed off on his World Rally Championship career at the very highest level.

Or has he?

Signed off, that is?

That’s another question for another day – but worth noting that one of his last requests of Julien Ingrassia was that his career-long co-driver might consider keeping his telephone switched on. You never know…

For now, the time has come to reflect on the driver who dominated the last decade of the World Rally Car era by winning eight of nine titles between 2013 and 2021.

Sébastien Ogier 2021 season review

And few – if any – could forget the Gap star’s first taste of World Rally Car power at the highest level. Having lifted the Junior World Rally Championship on only his eighth start at the sport’s highest level, he was offered by Citroën a C4 WRC for Rally GB for his ninth outing.

Winning the Junior WRC crown in Corsica, 2008 lit the touchpaper to rocket-propel Ogier’s career. Watching a bashful 24-year-old being photographed alongside Sébastien Loeb – a man well on his way to a fifth world title at that point – was intriguing. Ogier’s deference was as understandable as it was entirely natural. Loeb was a global rallying icon. And here he was shaking hands with him, accepting his congratulations and looking forward to driving the same car as him on the next rally.

In October, 2008, Ogier’s world went a bit mad. And stayed there until FORUM8 ACI Rally Monza last week.

Running a month later than usual, Rally GB kicked off in the first week of December in 2008. And if Ogier thought the media spotlight was bright in Ajaccio in the autumn, it was nothing compared with Sweet Lamb in the winter. Ogier’s first ever stage in a World Rally Car in the World Rally Championship, how did that go?

Ogier and Ingrassia signing off in Monza

Fastest. Fastest by 5.1 seconds. A second per kilometre quicker than anybody. He put two seconds per kilometre on fellow C4 WRC driver Sébastien Loeb.

That Friday morning in mid-Wales the watching world really did go a bit mad. Everybody wanted to talk to the man who held a 2.3 second lead at the lunchtime remote tyre zone. Catching a word with the man who was trying to catch his breath was tricky.

It’s worth putting some context around that opening day of Rally GB; winter arrived and ravaged the day one roads. The Hafren stages were cancelled due to them resembling an ice-skating rink. A short Sweet Lamb test opened proceedings, followed by Myherin. First on the road was a proper handicap and Loeb’s times reflected the fact he was picking his way between the icebergs which sat in the wetter sections.

When Ogier arrived, the frozen surface had been broken up with the gravel beneath offering marginally more resistance.

First thing Saturday morning, Ogier learned a valuable lesson about Wales: consistent grip is not something the place is big on. He tipped the C4 WRC into a roll and retired. Hero to zero would be grossly unfair?

He’d won a world title in his rookie season and demonstrated that he was neither scared of the step up to the sport’s top level or a respecter of reputation. He was young, quick and keen to prove a point.

Emotional farewell from a retiring WRC great

Emotional farewell from a retiring ...

Julien Ingrassia has reflected on the wave of emotion that overcame him as he celebrated an eighth FIA World Rally Championship ...

Read more

It was impossible to imagine how Ogier and co-driver Julien Ingrassia could improve on a Junior WRC debut win in Mexico, the Junior WRC title in season one and leading their first WRC round in a World Rally Car. They managed it at the top of the 2009 campaign.

Entered into Rallye Monte-Carlo (not included in the WRC campaign that season) by tyre firm BF Goodrich’s talent-spotting programme, it was hard to gauge where their Peugeot 207 S2000 would slot in. Didier Auriol, Freddy Loix, Toni Gardemeister and Stéphane Sarrazin were all on the entry list. And all of them had way, way more experience of the Monte than Ogier. It wasn’t hard, Sébastien had never started the rally which passed through his village on an annual basis. He’d watched it, been out and spectated a good few times. And he knew the terrain, the surrounding mountains at least, from working as a ski instructor. But knowledge of the rally was zip. Nothing.

Leading by the end of day two, he parked the Peugeot outside the Palace close to two minutes ahead of everybody on Sunday afternoon.

This was getting silly. Ogier’s rise through the ranks was truly remarkable. Where would it end?

Ireland, a couple of weeks later. That’s where Ogier was reminded how important experience is in the sport of rallying. In horrible conditions, he dropped the Citroën and was fortunate to be manhandled back onto the road. Across the next five rallies, the dream turned to something of a nightmare. An alternator problem cost time in Norway, but then he was off the road in Cyprus, Portugal and Argentina. By the time suspension trouble ruled him out of Sardinia, the wheels were starting to come off.

WRC Legend: Sébastien Ogier

Citroën boss Olivier Quesnel was starting to lose patience and he was in serious need of a result. In half a year, he’d gone from superstar in the making to a driver teetering on the brink.

That result came in Loutraki with second place on the Acropolis Rally. A sensible run through Greece helped him catch a break and some breathing space. For the rest of that year, the results were unremarkable, but a bit more dependable. Until he crashed again in Wales – a rally he would later admit it took him longer than he could ever have expected to learn.

The second half of 2009 saved him and as he started to return to rallies where he had experience, he started to go through the gears. There was another podium in Mexico and a cracking run through all-but one of the North Island stages at Rally New Zealand in the middle of the season. Ogier led Jari-Matti Latvala into the Whaanga Coast finale, only to slip-up at the last moment. The Ford-driving Finn nipped in and won by a couple of seconds. It was a heart-breaker for Ogier, but he didn’t have to wait long for win number one, which arrived at the very next round in Portugal. And he didn’t have to wait long to put one over on Latvala – when he edged Latvala to the closest-ever WRC finish to take a two-tenths of a second win at the 2011 Rally Jordan.

As 2011 progressed it was increasingly clear that he was quicker than Loeb’s Citroën Total World Rally team-mate Dani Sordo. The Spaniard was gently moved aside for Ogier at Rally Finland. Ogier finished second on only his second start in a four-wheel drive car in Jyväskylä to put any raised eyebrows back in their place.

Ogier was a very different driver to Sordo. Dani knew his place at Citroën. Ogier wasn’t interested in any of that. His confidence was growing and he wasn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers among the Red Army. By the middle of the year, what had started as a French dream team for Citroën had imploded. Ogier had no interest in settling for second and wasn’t afraid to voice that opinion. It was one or the other. Predictably, the Versailles overlords went with the man who had put Citroën on the world rally map.

Au revoir Ogier.

Putting the two Sébs together at Citroën was a difficult fit

The then seven-time WRC winner had future options. It was a straight choice: M-Sport Ford or Volkswagen Motorsport.

After much deliberation, Ogier went with Volkswagen. That meant stepping back to a Škoda Fabia S2000 for the 2012 season before launching himself into 2013. Ogier’s decision was a good one. When 2013 came, he was like a coiled spring. Out of the box the Ogier-Polo partnership was a winner. Fastest on the opening stage of the season, he dominated the year to the tune of nine victories from 13 starts. Both titles were won in a crushing demonstration of control and supremacy. Nobody stood a chance, not even Ogier’s team-mates.

Through the Volkswagen years, Ogier’s competitive edge was sharper than ever. He was utterly ruthless in the way he demolished team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen. Occasionally, his Nordic colleagues were offered the scraps from his table, but it was fairly rare when Ogier was edged for pace in a Polo.

For four years, Volkswagen won every title available. Granted, it’s not quite the same as the five years Citroën and Loeb monopolised the sport, but who’s to say Volkswagen Motorsport wouldn’t have continued winning if the German manufacturer stayed in the championship post-2016?

Certainly, Ogier’s confident the 2017-specification Polo R WRC would have been a very capable successor to a car which had won 43 of the 52 rallies run across a four-year period. We’ll never know. The Polo R WRC would spend its days sitting beneath a dust sheet in a corner of Volkswagen Motorsport’s Hanover factory.

Ogier and Volkswagen were an unbeatable force, combining for four world titles

Coming so late in the season, Ogier was forced to make a quick decision on where he would defend his fourth title. He tested an early incarnation of Toyota’s Yaris WRC, but couldn’t get comfortable with it. Conversely, he was immediately at home in the M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC.

So, five years on from when he’d come close to a deal with Malcolm Wilson, he put pen to paper and joined the British team. The result? Instant success and no discernible change in the run of results with M-Sport Ford and Ogier sealing their titles with one round to spare.

M-Sport Ford brought out a different side to Ogier’s character. Prior to his arrival in a Fiesta, he’d been driven very much by a global corporate manufacturer. Citroën and Volkswagen were very much factory teams. M-Sport Ford was and is a family-oriented outfit run out of the Wilson’s hometown in Great Britain’s north-west.

The two years – and two drivers’ titles – he won with Wilson gave Sébastien a different view of the sport. By no means did it soften his approach, but it certainly helped develop him as a person. The friendship between the two, forged from success in the stages and over a bottle or two of Cheval Blanc afterwards, will last forever.

Ogier and M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson forged a strong personal bond working together

It was, however, impossible for Wilson to fund a third season with Ogier, which is how he ended up heading back to the beginning. Back to Versailles, where his career began 12 years earlier.

Winning the 2019 season opener in Monte Carlo reminded Citroën what they’d missed – and confirmed Ogier’s utter class as he took victory in the Alps with a third different manufacturer in four years.

At the top of his Citroën return, Ogier made his plans clear: he would be around for two more seasons before departing the WRC for family life at the end of 2020.

Second time around, the French romance didn’t quite play out the way everybody had hoped. Frustrated by the results, Ogier walked at the end of year one. He headed for a Toyota Yaris WRC seat vacated by Ott Tänak, the man who had ended Ogier’s run of world championship success by lifting the 2019 crown.

Swapping a C3 WRC for a Yaris WRC didn’t alter his masterplan. He still intended to be away at the end of the year, until things changed and COVID-19 struck.

Not wanting to end his career in a season so significantly impacted by a global pandemic, Ogier offered his services to Toyota for one more season. Predictably, the Japanese giant jumped at the chance and a 2021 farewell tour was the result.

Ogier's second stint at Citroën did not always produce smiles

And this year has been an Ogier masterclass in how to control a season and take the ultimate prize. By his own admission, he’s struggled to hit the heights he might have managed a few years earlier, but when he’s needed a result, he’s generated one. His drive to victory at last week’s FORUM8 ACI Rally Monza was one of the absolute highlights. He drove brilliantly to bring the curtain down on his full-time career, his time with co-driver Julien Ingrassia and, of course, the World Rally Car era.

To have a champion of champions winning at the end of a quarter of a century of sublime sport was the perfect storyline.

Is that the end for Ogier? Not a chance. He’s back for January’s Rallye Monte-Carlo and will contest a limited programme with Toyota into next season. When he does depart, he will be missed. And badly missed.

Out of an ambitious, hungry, ruthless 20-something has grown a driver of immense stature in the sport. He’s seen the best come and go; he’s faced down some of the fastest drivers in the history of the sport and he’s done so in some of the most complicated circumstances. When the decision was taken to force the championship leader to run first on the road for two days in 2015, Ogier considered walking from the sport. Looking back, it was a fairly crude attempt to skew the competition in his rivals’ favour. He was punished for his own success and it drove him crazy.

Throughout his time, all he’s asked for is a level playing field and for two years he was forced to run uphill against opposition looking down on him. He berated the sport’s rule-makers regularly and often and with ever increasing volume, but he stuck with it. He didn’t walk.

Instead, he won.

American philosopher and founding father Benjamin Franklin reckoned opportunity came out of adversity and Ogier is testament to that. The adverse conditions he faced offered the opportunity to make himself into one of the best. One of the very best.

And that’s exactly what he did.

This article is part of a an ongoing series of 25 stories that look back at the 25 years of the World Rally Car era, that will be published every Friday throughout 2021 on non-rally weeks.

Ogier claims record Monte-Carlo victory

More 25 Stories