The deal was kept un­der wraps, but MN takes you through M-sport’s big­gest coup. By David Evans

Motor Sport News - - Wrc Preview: Ogier -

Sebastien Ogier’s not nor­mally slow. To­day, he’s slow. Very slow. And he’s hold­ing up M-sport’s 2017 strat­egy meet­ing. Even­tu­ally, he and co-driver Julien In­gras­sia make it to the oak-pan­eled board­room in Dovenby Hall. The rea­son for the de­lay couldn’t be more worth­while.

“I went to meet and to shake hands with ev­ery­body,” he says.

Ev­ery­body? Ev­ery­body. Like, all 200 of them.

“He went ev­ery­where,” con­firms team prin­ci­pal Mal­colm Wil­son. “He went into ac­counts, the clean­ers, ev­ery­where. You should have seen the look on their faces. I tell you, morale here couldn’t be higher.” Ogier smiles and agrees. “It was re­ally nice to feel the en­thu­si­asm ev­ery­body has,” he says. “Some of them ac­tu­ally came in over Christ­mas, when the fac­tory was closed, they came in to make some more time and do some more work on the car. They wanted to do some­thing ex­tra. It’s so nice to feel part of some­thing like that, but now I have to de­liver. Now I have to do my part.”

And the first part of Ogier’s part was to sit in that strat­egy meet­ing and talk out the po­ten­tial for a fifth straight cham­pi­onship for him­self and a first in a decade for M-sport.

“That meet­ing was so dif­fer­ent to last year,” says Wil­son. “There was so much pos­i­tiv­ity in there. We went through ev­ery­thing for the year ahead. I have to tell you, it was fan­tas­tic to see the boys sit­ting around that ta­ble.”

For the start of this deal, you have to rewind to Fri­day Novem­ber 25, when a black Range Rover rocked up at Cardiff Air­port and Wil­son col­lected a cou­ple of spe­cial French­men for a day out at Wal­ter’s Arena.

“Get­ting them in the car was the pri­or­ity for me,” says Wil­son. “I wanted to know what he thought [of the car]. I didn’t want him here if he couldn’t see the po­ten­tial.” He could see the po­ten­tial. Carved out of a great swathe of Rhe­ola for­est as a spec­ta­tor stage, Wal­ter’s Arena of­fers great view­ing.

“Im­me­di­ately you could see what he had,” Wil­son says. “He did one fa­mil­iari­sa­tion run and then the next run and the next run were just per­fect. He didn’t ap­pear to be get­ting faster and faster, it was just pure class, pre­ci­sion. There was no fid­dling with the car, he was straight in and straight on it, tak­ing the same line through the cor­ners time after time.”

The deal took time to con­clude, but at nine min­utes past four on Mon­day De­cem­ber 12, pen was put to pa­per. Vir­tu­ally-speaking.

“I must ad­mit, the tim­ing for all of this to hap­pen was… should we say, less than per­fect,” Wil­son smiles thinly. “What with the in­vest­ment we’ve got go­ing on here at Dovenby and the in­vest­ment in the new fa­cil­ity in Poland, it’s fair to say the ne­go­ti­a­tions with Sebastien did leave me with a few sleepless nights. My pri­or­ity has al­ways been and will al­ways be to the 200 peo­ple who work here at M-sport and I’ve ex­plained that to Sebastien; they have to come first. But at the same time, I’m pas­sion­ate about this sport and, for me, there will never be another op­por­tu­nity like this one.

“Once he’d tested the car, then it came to the tricky part: find­ing the fi­nan­cial model which would work. We’ve done that and what we’ve got is M-sport’s best driver line-up in 10 years. As a team, we have to make that work.

“We’re stick­ing our head above the para­pet here and if this doesn’t work and we don’t win then there’s no ques­tion, it’s 100 per cent down to us. Un­doubt­edly, he and Julien can do the job. It’s a great chal­lenge for us all.”

The re­sponse from his staff has been just what he hoped for.

Wil­son adds: “There’s so much re­spect for him. The dif­fer­ence it’s made in morale and com­mit­ment is in­cred­i­ble, the re­sponse from ev­ery­body has been phe­nom­e­nal.

“What this is, is a real chance for ev­ery­body here to show what we’re ca­pa­ble of. It’s a straight­for­ward oneyear deal, but it’s an op­por­tu­nity we had to grab. There’s no ques­tion we would find a way to make it longer, but I have to ac­cept we might not be in the po­si­tion to fund him for 2018. But I’m go­ing to be try­ing ev­ery pos­si­ble so­lu­tion to find a way to re­tain him.”

After four years without a win – the long­est stretch since he took over Ford’s com­mit­ment in the WRC in 1997 – Wil­son’s ready to put that era to an end.

“We came close last year with Ott [Tanak] in Poland,” he says. “To be hon­est, the re­ac­tion from the team was another con­sid­er­a­tion when I was think­ing about do­ing the deal with Seb. When Ott got that punc­ture and lost the lead, the feel­ing about the place was in­cred­i­ble. It had been a long time since I’d seen that raw emo­tion and it made me think: ‘Gosh, this still means so much to the peo­ple who work for me…’ But it re­ally does hurt when you don’t win – we’ve felt that here.

“Let’s see how Monte Carlo goes. If that goes well, then I don’t see why we’re not go­ing to ev­ery round of the cham­pi­onship look­ing for the win – and that’s not just with Seb, it’s with Ott as well.”

Be­ing around Dovenby as M-sport went through its fi­nal prepa­ra­tions for the Monte was an en­light­en­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. The roar­ing fire in re­cep­tion of­fered sym­bol­ism as well as a warm against a cut­ting Cum­brian wind.

There’s an en­ergy about the place which hasn’t been felt for a while. And it’s be­ing felt by ev­ery­body.

Chris Wil­liams is the man who has de­signed Ogier’s new mo­tor. Stick­ing a pair of num­ber ones on the doors has hiked the al­ready sky-high pres­sure on him.

M-sport’s head of rally en­gi­neer­ing says: “Sign­ing Sebastien brings pres­sure for sure, but he also brings massive op­por­tu­nity. The mo­ti­va­tion here has stepped up two or three notches. Peo­ple were tired from last sea­son and a long devel­op­ment project with the new car and try­ing to keep them mo­ti­vated might have been dif­fi­cult, but not when Ogier ar­rived. Ev­ery­body’s at the top of their game, mak­ing sure we make him happy.”

Ogier’s im­me­di­ate re­sponse to the car has been pos­i­tive, with noth­ing more than set-up changes in areas like the dampers. Noth­ing dra­matic. A thumbs up from the four-time cham­pion was the best pos­si­ble shot in the arm for Wil­liams.

“Sebastien got into the car and said: ‘Yeah, it’s a 2017 World Rally Car, it feels fine…’ That was a good mo­ment,” says Wil­liams. “Then we made some changes to the car and our cur­rent driv­ers said: ‘Mmm, not sure, it feels dif­fer­ent here, it feels like that there…’ But then Seb got out and said: ‘Feels fine to me!’ I was like: right, OK, that’s good. We’re head­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

Like Wil­liams, Miguel Cunha has been at M-sport through thick and thin. As well as two world ti­tles, his 16 years at the team af­forded him the chance to work with driv­ers like Colin Mcrae and Car­los Sainz. Such ex­pe­ri­ence has of­fered a good ground­ing for work­ing with the team’s lat­est megas­tar.

“From the first time I met Sebastien, it felt com­fort­able, he was easy [com­pany],” says ‘Migsy,’ who will be num­ber one tech­ni­cian on the num­ber one car. “We talked about a few things with the car, where he wanted some

things to go. We didn’t have long to­gether, but it felt good. My first im­pres­sion of him is that he’s quite like Car­los – he’s a man of many de­tails and a man who likes ev­ery­thing to be per­fect. To be hon­est, that suits me. I’m known for be­ing quite ob­ses­sive about the de­tails and for dou­ble-check­ing and prob­a­bly go­ing a bit over the top with things in the car.”

Un­de­ni­ably there’s some ap­pre­hen­sion from some of the younger engi­neers; bring­ing the world cham­pion along does that to a team.

“It can be quite in­tim­i­dat­ing,” Cunha con­tin­ues. “But the boys I have picked to work on Sebastien’s car, I know how to calm them down. They’re up to speed now and so ex­cited to be work­ing with him. We’ve been re­ally putting the hours in on this car, ev­ery­thing is go­ing to be 100 per cent. Like I said, I’ve worked here a while now and this is the best news I’ve ever known for the team. In terms of a driver line-up the one we have for this year is pretty spe­cial. We’ve got the best driver, no ex­cuses now!”

To a man – and woman – through­out the team, the thing ev­ery­body con­tin­u­ally ref­er­ences with Ogier is his pro­fes­sion­al­ism. It’s the same on the other side of the car with co-driver In­gras­sia.

In­gras­sia will be work­ing with lo­gis­tics co-or­di­na­tor Iain Tul­lie on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, so the pair were glad of the op­por­tu­nity to sit down and talk the year through ear­lier this month.

“Ev­ery­thing Julien does is done to the nth de­gree,” says Tul­lie.

Wil­son’s head pops around the door at just the right mo­ment for him to add: “You should see the reams and reams of pa­per­work he’s been send­ing to Iain, the de­tail is just in­cred­i­ble.” And Tul­lie’s de­lighted to see it. “His at­ten­tion to that de­tail is amaz­ing,” he says. “He picks up on ev­ery­thing. We talked about his process after the recce and be­fore the event and Julien made it quite clear that he will lock him­self away in his room and not come out while he’s work­ing on his notes – there’s no hope of him go­ing to the res­tau­rant for a bite to eat. After our meet­ing with Seb and Julien, we have made some changes be­fore Monte. As an ex­am­ple, we will be tak­ing six me­teo [weather] crews this time in­stead of the four we’ve had in years gone by. As a team, it’s quite clear that we’re all will­ing to do what­ever it takes this time. Ev­ery­body wants to de­liver the ab­so­lute best they pos­si­bly can; there are world cham­pi­onships to be won again.”

Com­mu­ni­cat­ing suc­cess to the out­side world is an ab­so­lute must – es­pe­cially if M-sport’s to stand any chance of land­ing a backer lu­cra­tive enough to keep Ogier where he is into 2018.

Be­ing blunt, M-sport press of­fi­cer Anna Rudd’s tele­phone hasn’t ex­actly been red-hot in re­cent sea­sons. Not for in­com­ing calls, that is. She’s made plenty of re­quests for cov­er­age around the world, but the lack of a big-time wheel­man has made hers a hard sell.

Not any more. Since De­cem­ber 12, her tele­phone’s rarely quiet for more than a mo­ment.

For ob­vi­ous rea­sons, Rudd was kept closer to M-sport’s in­ner cir­cle than most.

“Mal­colm kept me in the loop with what was go­ing on,” she says. “But I had to be care­ful not to get swept along with the hype. It was lovely to see the whole #Ogier­tom-sport thing go­ing on and it made me smile that ev­ery­body seemed to be root­ing for us to get him. But I didn’t let my­self be­lieve it un­til it ac­tu­ally hap­pened.

“On the day of the deal, Mal­colm called me into his of­fice and told me it was hap­pen­ing. He said: ‘Here’s Seb’s num­ber, give him a call for a quote…’ As soon as he came on the phone, I was bab­bling away say­ing: ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you!’ He must have won­dered what was go­ing on. But he was great, he to­tally put me at ease and gave me a great quote.

“The good thing with Sebastien is that you know where you stand. I re­ally like that. I’ve had a great re­la­tion­ship with all the driv­ers I’ve worked with, but the guys it’s been eas­i­est with has been Robert [Ku­bica] and Evgeny [Novikov]. There were no grey areas with them: it was yes or no, I get the feel­ing it’ll be the same with Seb and I like that.

“It’s fair to say, the phone did go mad the day we an­nounced the deal. Sebastien was on hol­i­day, look­ing for­ward to his first Christ­mas with his new son and his wife, so he wasn’t avail­able for the in­ter­views ev­ery­body was ex­pect­ing. I was re­ally sur­prised at how un­der­stand­ing the me­dia was. Ev­ery­body was so pleased for us. It was fan­tas­tic. Now what I’m look­ing for­ward to is stand­ing on that podium, cov­ered in cham­pagne with mas­cara smudged down my face!”

M-sport’s made a bit of a habit of win­ning with new cars and new driv­ers first time out. Think Mikko Hir­vo­nen’s Rally Swe­den win in 2011 or Mar­cus Gron­holm’s Monte win five years be­fore.

If Ogier main­tains that tra­di­tion this week, ex­pect there to be plenty of emo­tion.

For Sebastien, it’ll be busi­ness as usual; for Wil­son and his team, it’ll be back in busi­ness. ■

Ogier’s new mount for the 2017 at­tack

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