Once more unto the breach

Sébastien Ogier could have walked away from the WRC but a Brit persuaded the flying Frenchman to stay. And together they mean business 

It may not have been the daredevil drive that rally drivers have become famous for, but Sébastien Ogier’s gameplan was devastatingly effective. Even on an event he defined as ‘a bit of a nightmare’ Ogier still managed to stretch his championship lead at Corsica, following a strategy very much based on the principle of divide and conquer.

The great champions – of whom Ogier is unquestionably one, having claimed the WRC title for the last four years on the trot – distinguish themselves not only by their pure driving ability but by their capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. 

One change that Ogier, or indeed the rest of the world, couldn’t have foreseen was Volkswagen’s withdrawal from the WRC last year. A lot has already been said about that, but what’s probably been underplayed is how close Ogier came to walking away completely. He hung on for a long time in the hope of a privateer Volkswagen deal that never materialised; Citroën didn’t let him test its car unless he signed (and probably didn’t have the budget to afford him anyway). Hyundai was a closed shop, while Toyota was a new and unproven prospect. Early retirement beckoned where he would be able to enjoy what would undoubtedly have been a munificent severance package with Volkswagen. 

It seemed the obvious choice, for other reasons too: Ogier was at last year’s FIA prize-giving and Nico Rosberg’s sudden announcement certainly got him thinking. That came after just one title victory, not four consecutive ones. The other factor that changed Ogier’s life was the birth of his son Tim last year. He’s always said that it made him re-evaluate everything and resent time spent away from home. So maybe Volkswagen’s withdrawal was meant to be…

And then he tested M-Sport’s new Fiesta, imagined what it would be like to win the championship in a privateer car, for one of the team principals, Malcolm Wilson, he has always respected most and realised, perhaps with a shock, that it was perfectly possible.

He was going to have to change his approach entirely though. No longer could he rely on the effortless superiority of the best and most generously funded car in the service area (which won nine of the 13 rallies last year) to carry him through. Just as Wilson, following Ford’s withdrawal as a manufacturer, is extremely careful about how he spends his money, Ogier has had to exercise the same prudence in deploying his talent. Yet he’ll even admit that in some ways it’s more fun than before, having to outsmart his rivals with intelligence and calculation rather than brute force.

Every single point is now important. And rather than heading off to drive his own rally, he’s got to keep a closer eye than ever on what everyone else is doing. Of course, there’s only so much you can influence yourself, and in that respect, he’s been lucky that Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville was the fourth winner from as many rallies in Corsica.

But Ogier’s own scores from those four events have been a first, a third, and two-second places: enough to keep him at the head of the standings. The speed of the Fiesta RS WRC is good enough: Ogier doesn’t need the quickest car. Reliability, he said, was always going to be his biggest worry, and in Corsica this proved prescient. He was hit by two separate problems – hydraulic and electrical – which could have cost him his championship lead, and certainly cost him the chance to win the rally.

But crucially the Fiesta kept going, proving that Ogier and M-Sport have got damage limitation down to a fine art. This is probably what this season will come down to, principally opposed by a Hyundai that’s been leading three out of four rallies so far (with two of the i20 WRCs on the podium in Corsica as well). Some say it’s better to be born lucky rather than good, but Ogier is both. And that’s why the Tour de Corse showed how the Frenchman is still in the strongest position to win the title this year. Even when things go quite badly wrong, he’s able to extract the maximum.

If he collects title number five at the end of the year maybe then at the age of 34 (a couple of years older than Rosberg) he’ll finally decide to knock it on the head and spend more time at home in Switzerland with his German TV presenter wife Andrea, and their tiny Tim. It would come as no surprise to those who know him. Because by that point, there really will be nothing left to prove.