Silly seasons are by no means exclusive to the Formula 1 paddock
There’s one thing the top three finishers had in common on the recent Rallye Deutschland – a curious amalgam of three national rallies rolled into one, and probably the only event on the World Rally Championship calendar to feature the rusting hulks of tanks (on the Baumholder military ranges). All three drivers are at the centre of the WRC’s ‘silly season’, which like its Formula 1 counterpart reaches a frenzy circa September. This year, the WRC driver market runs its natural course for the first time since 2015, because last year’s ‘transfer window’ was blown apart by the sudden departure of Volkswagen, dropping a bomb onto everyone’s plans overnight.
It was this astonishing development that triggered world champion Sébastien Ogier’s move to M-Sport and Andreas Mikkelsen’s move to the job centre – until he was picked up by Citroën for a part-programme with the beleaguered C3 WRC: a car which, to quote team principal Yves Matton, “fell somewhat short of expectations.” In terms of understatement, this was right up there with Emperor Hirohito’s assertion that “the situation has developed, not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” during World War II.
Yet Mikkelsen led with the C3 in Germany, before finishing runner-up to M-Sport’s Ott Tanak (right) by 16sec, while the other Fiesta WRC of Ogier was 14sec further back in third – the Frenchman having retaken the championship lead with three rounds to go.
Like all the best biopics, these stories are intertwined within the overarching tale of who goes where next year. A sub-plot has been the emergence of returnee Toyota as a real force to be reckoned with, as opposed to an intriguing red herring.
So, here’s how the story goes. Ogier now looks set to win this year’s world title, according to most people, but he knows he’s been lucky: his principal rival Thierry Neuville has retired twice from the lead (in Monte Carlo and Sweden) then again from third place (in Germany).
If Ogier also delivers M-Sport the title for manufacturers, it’s job done for the potential five-time world champion having beaten the best in the world as a privateer. So, what next?
He says he’d like to stay at M-Sport but he’s reluctant to commit without manufacturer backing from Ford. You could argue that Ford is almost morally compelled to support the programme if M-Sport does scoop both titles – something it has never achieved before, even with an official factory team.
But Ford could equally argue that it has reaped all the kudos and exposure for free. Hell, there’s even a big blue Ford badge on the bonnet. Why pay for something you can have for nothing? Especially because – given the closeness of this year’s championship – future success is far from guaranteed.
Ogier knows all this, as he’s one of the smartest people to don a crash helmet. So he could switch teams, or just do a Nico Rosberg and retire at the top of his game with every box ticked.
He already came close to it last year, and in conversation he admits that he’s got other priorities now: his recently born son Tim and his home life with TV presenter wife Andrea. When the 33-year-old speaks so lovingly about how they have transformed his perspective, you get the impression of a man who could walk away tomorrow and still be blissfully happy.
But like Rosberg, who said he would have continued had he lost the F1 championship, Ogier’s thinking might just be different if he doesn’t win the title this year – and that’s where it starts to get interesting.
Because a lot of what happens next probably depends on the man who recently beat him in Germany: Mikkelsen. The Norwegian already has strong links with Citroën, but tested for Hyundai earlier in the year and is rumoured to be lining up a longer-term deal there.
Whether or not Mikkelsen does head to Hyundai, there seems to be no room at the inn for Ogier, with team principal Michel Nandan stating categorically that they are full.
That leaves Ogier’s former team, Citroën, which is “talking with everyone who’s available”, according to Matton. On paper, it’s a perfect relationship: a French world champion in a French car, harking back to the glory days of Loeb.
Except that Citroën and Ogier hardly parted on friendly terms last time, Loeb himself is back on the scene and it’s also uncertain that Citroën has the financial clout to meet Ogier’s salary demands while continuing to develop the car effectively.
Although it’s getting better, the C3 is still currently the weakest of the bunch: why would Ogier want to go there anyway?
And so, Toyota: a car that Ogier actually tested – and rejected – at the end of last year. It’s an option he should consider for 2018, from both a commercial and sporting perspective, but team principal Tommi Mäkinen is known to be keen on Tanak (the winner in Germany, don’t forget) and is also reluctant to disrupt the team’s easy-going Nordic vibe, which has helped Jari-Matti Latvala to the form of his life following a comprehensive mental destruction alongside Ogier at Volkswagen over four years. Understandably, Ogier may also now be disinclined to wear the boot proffered to his other foot by partnering Latvala in what is effectively the Finn’s own team.
So remarkably, there’s no obvious solution for the most successful driver currently in the sport, the one who holds a vital key in the transfer market. Maybe he’s best off staying at M-Sport after all, so long as Malcolm Wilson’s pockets are deep enough. Or did Rosberg’s shock announcement ahead of last year’s FIA awards gala – where Ogier was sitting just metres away from the F1 champ – give him some real food for thought?