To many people, Sebastien Loeb is the World Rally Championship. Why wouldn't he be? He's won 58 rallies and steamrollered the last six world titles almost unhindered. Unhindered that is, until now. Now there's another Frenchman: another Sebastien in another Citroen. This one's called Ogier and he's ready to put the older one to the sword.
Ogier scored his first World Rally Championship win, the Rally of Portugal, at the end of May. He drove superbly. It was a pressure-cooker win straight from the Loeb textbook. And, to make it even more satisfying for Ogier, it was Loeb that he beat in the final-stage thriller.
Before venturing into the details of just how Ogier is sizing up Loeb's crown, it's worth taking a look into the younger Sebastien's WRC history. It won't take long.
The 26-year-old has only started 28 rounds of the series, making his debut at Rally Mexico in 2008. With help from France's governing body of motorsport, Ogier gathered sufficient budget to tackle the Junior World Rally Championship in 2008. As the name suggests, the Junior series is a feeder for the main event, with drivers contesting six rallies in a 1600cc front-wheel-drive car. Ogier chose a Citroen C2, successor to the Saxo in which Loeb had won the Junior title seven years earlier.
Mexico was the first round in 2008, with plenty of talk of last year's runner-up being this year's favorite. But then, bang! Out of nowhere, Ogier won the JWRC class in the opener and finished an incredible eighth overall on his debut at the highest level. Suddenly everybody knew the name Ogier. Loeb was wheeled out to be pictured alongside the latest potential successor driving a Citroen. Loeb had seen it all before. But this time, Ogier maintained that momentum.
His domination of that year's Junior series was rewarded with a semi-works Citroen C4 WRC for the final round in 2008, Rally Great Britain. The British round of the series, run in the Welsh mountains in November, is not the best place to learn the dark art of taming a World Rally Car. Regularly lashed with rain, the twisty, technical and hard-to-read gravel roads are among the toughest in the world. That year, they got even tougher with heavy snow and freezing temperatures. Confronted by sheet ice, Loeb and his fellow WRC superstars predicted a nightmare.
Ogier was fastest on the first stage and led until the fifth. Those who had just caught their breath after this unknown's runaway Junior win across the spread of the season had it knocked out of them by the most audacious World Rally Car debut ever. Admittedly, Ogier rolled later in the rally, but it mattered little. His mark was made.
The career-progression comparison between Loeb and Ogier is uncanny – and not just in terms of results. Loeb's early seasons were backed unflinchingly by Citroen team principal Guy Frequelin. Once convinced of his talent, Frequelin went out on a limb to source extra budget to run Loeb as often as he could. It's the same with Ogier, but for Frequelin, read Olivier Quesnel, current Citroen Racing director and Frequelin's successor.
After a slightly rollercoaster season last year, Ogier arrived in Jordan for round three of this year's WRC – and that's where we saw the true level of his determination. In years to come, it may be said that the Dead Sea is where the rot set in the relationship between the two Sebastiens. Going into the final day of the rally, Citroen elected to make Ogier drop time and run ahead of Loeb in the stages, helping to clean the line for the team leader. Running third and daring to think about his first win, Ogier was not impressed. In fact, he was furious. But, he toed the party line and did his job.
As much as Ogier is coming into favor at Citroen, you have to understand that Citroen is Loeb's team – and pretty well always will be. Citroen makes great rally cars, but it took Loeb to stand them on top of the world. Since winning his first round of the World Rally Championship in 2002, Loeb has gone on to take another 57 victories from 112 rallies. He has seen off some of the world's greatest drivers. In his rookie year, Loeb had the measure of WRC titans Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz and nobody since has gotten close to the 36-year-old. His extended statistics are enormously impressive: from his 132 WRC starts, he has been on the podium 89 times and finished in the points at 98 events.
It's no wonder Citroen thinks highly of him. But Loeb's decision to continue with the team, confirmed in mid-July, wasn't undertaken lightly. Much speculation surrounded whether the master would want to witness firsthand Ogier's fast-track development. Could he stomach the challenge of taking on – in identically prepared cars – another pretender to the crown that nobody else has worn since Petter Solberg in 2003? Apparently he can, because Ogier has also been confirmed as his teammate, replacing Spain's Dani Sordo as a fulltime works Citroen driver in 2011.
Yet, less than two weeks earlier, Loeb told the world's media that he thought it would be best if Ogier left Citroen!
Loeb justified those comments by talking about the possible tensions arising in the team while they focused on developing the all-new DS3 model. He added that, if Ogier left for Ford, it would maintain driver parity between the two firms (his respect for his younger compatriot's talent is thus quite explicit), and keep both manufacturers in the sport.
Loeb is generally a very well-meaning person. He's an exceptionally good egg and one of the most popular drivers in the sport. And, as he says, he's looking at the bigger picture and the general health of the sport. But equally, he doesn't want anybody treading on his toes. Citroen is his patch. Always has been.
Quesnel dismisses talk of intra-team tension, and says he's not concerned about running the two Sebastiens. He says: “Look at Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo or Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel. It's more complicated, but it's my job to make it work.”
Loeb's well aware of the threat Ogier poses. Six-time champ or not, he couldn't find the pace to beat him in a straight fight through the final day of Rally New Zealand – when Ogier took second and Loeb third, behind Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala – or Portugal. Loeb now rates his countryman as his main rival for this year's title. He said: “Sebastien Ogier is the quickest driver against me now. I'm surprised at how quickly he has come, how consistent he can be and how he can drive flat-out without making any mistakes. It's very impressive.”
Loeb pointed to the younger Sebastien's use of his Pirelli tires in Portugal as evidence of his ability. Loeb added: “In the afternoon, when it was hot and the other drivers were destroying their tires, only he and I were able to look after our tires and make them last. Maybe the fight [for the title] is coming in the team now.”
This talk of Ogier being a “threat” is firmly at odds with company policy. Asked whether the Sebastiens would be allowed to fight, Quesnel's reply is straightforward: “We want Sebastien Loeb to win the drivers' title and Citroen to be manufacturers champions. It is as simple as that.”
The Citroen team has been firmly constructed around Loeb, to such an extent that Quesnel openly talks of “the boss” when referring to his champion. Loeb's teammate of four years, Sordo has learned to live with number two status. Clearly, Ogier will not do the same. He's happy to play the game for now, but that attitude won't be the same next season. There's nothing like the reverence with which others talk of “the boss.” Ogier's careful not to be dismissive and pays his respects to the WRC's best ever, but he's not going to live in his shadow.
“Sebastien [Loeb] is an incredible driver and his career is just incredible,” says Ogier. “It will be difficult for anybody to do the same as him. I will try to have the best career I can. I know for the moment I have the fastest progression in rally ever, but still the most difficult thing to do is be consistent, to be fast and to win rallies and titles.”
Next time out, in Rally Finland, the pair will share the same team for the first time; Ogier replaces Sordo in the factory team for the remaining gravel rallies this year. Following Loeb's considerations on his teammate's best possible future, the atmosphere might not be quite so cordial as it once was, but Ogier won't care one little bit. Like the fiercest competitors, he's looking out for number one. And not the number “1” alongside Loeb's name.
A LOSS OF FOCUS
Ford's contender isn't one
The biggest loser from Sebastien Ogier's stunning rise to prominence this season is not Dani Sordo, the man whose place he will take alongside Sebastien Loeb next season, but Ford.
The Focus RS WRCs have been blown away by Citroen at virtually every turn. Mikko Hirvonen won the opener in Sweden, but since then the Finn has been unable to find anything like the form that took him to within a point of beating Loeb to last year's World Rally Championship. Teammate Jari-Matti Latvala, staggeringly fast though accident-prone last year, is consistent now but, compared to the C4s, consistently slow. His New Zealand win was a result of Loeb and Ogier trying too hard to outsmart each other.
The Finns are favorites for their home round, but that's as much down to Loeb being unwilling to take the required risks to win than any technical upsurge in the Blue corner. In fact, beyond some tweaks to the suspension and a new map for the ECU, there'll be no change to the Focus for the rest of the season. Ford's hands are tied in the financial and regulatory sense. With the onset of the all-new Fiesta RS WRC for next year, the majority of the development budget is going into the new car and, because it's not allowed to homologate any new parts for the Focus, Ford couldn't throw millions at upgrades even if it wanted to.
By contrast, the C4 has gone through continued testing and development in 2010, but possibly the biggest reason for Citroen's increase in pace has come from internal competition. For years, Loeb has dealt with a threat from teammate Dani Sordo for a day or two before the Spaniard faded, Now he's got Ogier in his face and forcing him to up his game.
And so, for Ford, the end of the season can't come soon enough.