PARIS: Sebastien Ogier heads into semi-retirement having clinched an eighth World Rally Championship title in nine years but without ever quite escaping the shadow of his former mentor Sebastien Loeb. The 37-year-old Ogier wrapped up the title on Sunday at Monza by holding off his Toyota teammate Elfyn Evans to move within one of Loeb’s record tally of nine world championship triumphs. Between them, the two Frenchmen have won 17 of the last 18 titles but because Ogier missed out in 2019, he will, unless he changes his mind, finish one short of his compatriot.
Ogier plans to race selected rallies next season while trying other disciplines. He has said he wants to compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where his current employer Toyota also enters cars. Loeb finished second in that race in 2006 and has also finished second in the Dakar Rally. The pair brought a new approach to rallying. “They changed rallying. They brought style! By being very precise, very direct,” said Jari-Matti Latvala, Ogier’s boss at Toyota. “Before, drivers were much more aggressive on the ground. Loeb came in and started to be much straighter with the car, without sliding, and Ogier continued.”
Ogier grew up in Gap, in the shadow of the French Alps. As a child he used to marvel as the Monte Carlo Rally zoomed through his mountains. His father was a fuel delivery driver and his mother an accountant. Ogier has a degree in mechanics and contemplated becoming a ski instructor. He is also French champion in the competitive Lyon variation of boules. He started his rally career with Citroen.
“Ogier had the human qualities, intelligence and adaptability in particular, and a fluidity of driving that would enable him to become a great driver,” said Olivier Quesnel, his boss at Citroen, in 2008. Ogier won the WRC junior championship in 2008. “He arrived at Citroen at a very young age and trained with Loeb,” recalls Xavier Mestelan Pinon, technical director of Citroen Racing at the time. “He had the talent and potential to get to this level, and he also had the chance to learn from the best. In the beginning, he worked hard to ‘copy’ Sebastien.”
But the two egos could not fit in one garage. A clash was inevitable. After a 2011 season in which they both won five rallies, Ogier left. “I knew we were letting go of a real diamond. It was painful to let go of such a driver, who had grown up with us, but we had other projects with Loeb,” said Mestelan Pinon. Ogier joined Volkswagen and competed the following year with their second-tier Skoda subsidiary. The next season he moved up and won the first of four straight titles with Volkswagen. He then won two with Ford. After an ill-fated return to Citroen, where he finished third in 2019 as Estonia’s Ott Tanak broke the French reign, Ogier joined Toyota.
After winning another title he considered quitting at the end of 2020, but the Covid pandemic convinced him to extend his contract for another year. “Okay, Loeb has more titles, but Ogier was able to win with different manufacturers, different cars,” said Latvala. Ogier shows his competitive spirit in the psychological games he plays with opponents. He often pointed out the failings of his main rival, Belgian Thierry Neuville, runner-up in 2013, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
“Loeb is seen as the perfect son-in-law and Ogier as someone who is a bit hard-headed and withdrawn. Perhaps a less sympathetic image in the eyes of the public,” said Mestelan Pinon. When Ogier races next year, one thing will be different. Benjamin Veillas will be in the passenger seat. Co-driver Julien Ingrassia, who first teamed up with Ogier in 2005, is retiring after this season. – AFP