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