OGIER GETS HIS HANDS ON A FI­ESTA WRC

CHAM­PION SAM­PLES M-SPORT WEAPON

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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

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