OGIER GETS HIS HANDS ON A FIESTA WRC
CHAMPION SAMPLES M-SPORT WEAPON
It was France. The Alps. Cumbria. No, definitely Wales. Sweet Lamb. For sure. Actually, it was Walter’s.
Walter’s Arena, the fanfriendly side of Rally GB’S famed Rheola stage. Just to the east, the school run was being completed in Glynneath. Same in Seven Sisters to the west. Around 0900hrs last Friday morning, the world was blissfully unaware of a nondescript black Range Rover turning off the A 465 towards the woods.
Aboard were three men with many world titles, and one possible goal.
Parking up next to the blue trucks, Sebastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia and Malcolm Wilson stepped out of the Rangie and headed straight into M-sport’s mission control for what had become so much more than a four-day 2017 development test for Ott Tanak and Mads Ostberg.
Any time one of these 2017 cars is fired up, there’s news potential. As the next generation of World Rally Cars edge ever closer, the world wants to see what tweaks have come, what spoilers have gone.
But this time, the interest is immense. This test was talked about endlessly on the other side of the world during Rally Australia. Rumour and speculation shifted date and location from Gap to Greystoke. But, actually, it was only ever going to the valleys and to roads Ogier and Ingrassia would last remember from 2012, the last time Rally GB was this far south.
Since then much has happened. The Frenchmen have won a quartet of world titles each. And lost their ride, courtesy of a former Volkswagen colleague’s interesting approach to tidying up diesel emissions numbers.
That’s how they’ve ended up in Rheola on a chilly but sunny November Friday.
Two days earlier, they were in Spain running Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Yaris WRC. Immediately afterwards, Toyota team boss Tommi Makinen flew to Japan – reportedly to sanction a 10m euro (£8.4m) deal to bring Ogier to the table.
Beyond confirming to Motorsport News that Ogier drove the car in Catalunya, Makinen would tell us nothing more. The team remained tight-lipped on the potential for a deal, forcing us to work harder than ever to find out how Wednesday went.
Sources close to Toyota confirm the commercial side of the agreement works well – money has talked the talk – but Ogier’s primary driver has always been a car that can carry him to a fifth straight title. Having done his time developing a car (remember his 2012 season in a Skoda while he perfected the Polo), he’s in it to win it these days. Talk from Toyota is that the deal’s a year too early, the car not quite ready. Which brings us to Wales. Again, as had been the case in Spain, Ogier and Ingrassia are keeping their own counsel. Not a word to MN’S snapper for the day Gary Jones or any number of our sources on the ground.
Words aren’t everything. We’re close enough to watch the body language and there’s warmth, humour and obvious professional respect between the two VW refugees and an M-sport inner-circle which includes technical director and a man widely credited with changing the way World Rally Cars are built: Christian Loriaux. The biggest of guns have been wheeled down south for this one.
Plain white-suited, Ogier and Ingrassia are directed to a similarly coloured, left-hand drive Ford Focus, their roadgoing recce car for the day.
The road ahead is familiar enough, whether they remember it from 2012 and years before or not, this style of south Welsh stage holds no surprises. If there is a surprise, it’s the bright blue skies, which forces an extra strip of tape on the windscreen in an effort to keep the rising autumn sun out of eyes.
Running in its heavily camouflaged livery, the Ford Fiesta RS WRC waits patiently. Recce complete, Ogier slides into the M-sport machine and takes in what could be his new home. Wilson hangs back and lets his engineers take over as they talk the Frenchman through the settings and switches.
Time to go. The car’s fired up and, among the hardcore who have made the trip, the sense of anticipation is massive. Could this be the day a historic deal’s done for the Cumbrians?
What happens in the next 10 minutes will have a massive bearing on that.
Ogier wastes little time. He’s on it by the end of the first lap. And stays there.
He completes five runs – the final two are two-lappers.
Between times, he’s been back to service and tweaked the suspension on an Ott Tanak-sourced set-up.
Out of the car, it’s all smiles. More bonhomie. More enthusiasm.
But still, not a word for the outside world.
Just after lunch, it’s time to get back down the road. Cardiff airport and a flight to Hannover for Volkswagen’s end of season party awaits. What an odd end to a surreal day that will provide.
Range Rover pointing north on the M6, Wilson accepts the call.
He was clearly a man who’s enjoyed his morning.
“The test went well,” he said. “Regarding negotiations, we’ve agreed that these will continue next week and that’s really all there is to say on that matter. The car performed very well all day.”
Apart from negotiations in 2011, Wilson’s only other observations of Ogier have been from afar: the outside
Countryfile? Another Inspector Morse? Or the final World RX round from Argentina? Quest certainly livened up last Sunday evening in my house. I’ve really enjoyed coverage of this year’s series and, despite my concerns that a two-hour format of pre-record and live would never work, it’s been utterly captivating from time to time.
Every now and then, though, you find yourself watching Car Crash TV with the sort of driving that falls some way below what you’d expect from an Fia-sanctioned series. There was a bit of that on Sunday. After watching the organisers deal valiantly with some of South America’s wettest conditions since the start of this year’s Dakar, the sun came out in time for the semi-finals.
Mattias Ekstrom versus Petter Solberg in the first semi was spoiled by the Swede’s determination to vacate the line quicker than anybody. Adjudged to have jumped the start, Solberg knew he had his place in the final booked if he could just keep his nose clean – something he’d managed by winning every one of the four qualifying rounds earlier in the weekend.
And things were looking good for the two-time World Rallycross champion as he trailed this year’s title-taker into the first corner. Then came the first wave of Fiesta attack from Janis Baumanis. Baumanis took a ballsy line down the outside into the first right-hander, allowing him to stand his ground when it came to the following left. There was a minor impact as Solberg was forced wide. Forceful, but fair.
Then came wave two: Timur Timerzyanov. He was even wider through the right, knew there was little chance of making the left, so seemed to aim his Fiesta’s nose somewhere in the region of the apex, stand on the throttle and let the pack do the rest.
It was the worst kind of in-off move I’ve seen in years. And one that caused a second, steeringsmashing hit on Solberg.
Still reeling from that, the same couple of corners caused more havoc in the second semi. This time it was Sebastien Loeb in Baumanis’ position, nine times having been squeezed by Reinis Nitiss. Just as Loeb needs to turn into the left, he’s in the air over the kerb and into the side of another car.
And here’s the utterly bonkers bit, the stewards decide to award Loeb a five-second penalty. Where did that come from? What happened 10 minutes earlier? Maybe the stewards had turned over and they were watching Countryfile.
The apparent absence of even-handed stewarding is something which has marked this year’s World RX, but Sunday was quite extraordinary. To be frank, it was embarrassing. I’m all for a bit of elbows, but that kind of driving needs to be saved for the local demolition derby.
Solberg and Loeb are better than this and worth more than being knocked off the road or laughed at in the stewards’ room.
Sheep farming on the Brecon Beacons was favoured to the final.
Ogier and M-sport’s Wilson are in talks