The end to Ogier’s M-sport story

This week­end the reign­ing World Rally cham­pion will ap­pear at the show in his new Citroen colours, but be­fore that there was the small mat­ter of say­ing farewell to the Bri­tish team

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - DAVID EVANS

When Se­bastien Ogier talks of his fresh World

Rally Cham­pi­onship deal and new life at Citroen, he speaks of po­ten­tial, of prospects. It’s all about one last roll of the dice; one fi­nal chal­lenge.

But take him back a month, to M-sport, and his face creases. He smiles. Mal­colm Wil­son’s team, his home for two sea­sons, was his fam­ily. It’s still sur­pris­ing the im­pact Ogier and co-driver Julien In­gras­sia had on the Bri­tish squad; and, prob­a­bly even more re­mark­able, the im­pact that M-sport had on the French­men.

When Ogier signed to drive a Ford

Fi­esta WRC for 2017, it was al­most im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict how things would play out. The ser­vice park hadn’t been short on sto­ries of how Ogier had en­joyed a cos­seted life with Volk­swa­gen. The Hanover team was his. Sure, Jari-matti Lat­vala and An­dreas Mikkelsen were along for the ride, but no­body was in any doubt about the num­ber one, the golden boy. World ti­tles buy you that sta­tus.

But M-sport’s not that kind of place. Hang around after fi­nal ser­vice on an event and you’ll see team prin­ci­pal Wil­son or his wife Elaine make a fi­nal sweep of their place, tidy­ing chairs, mov­ing cups or pick­ing up ca­ble ties. No­body is big­ger than this team – not even the boss. As Ogier made the tran­si­tion from one of al­most 650,000 em­ploy­ees at the world’s se­cond-big­gest car­maker to a cor­ner of Cum­bria where 300 folk work, there was some de­gree of trep­i­da­tion within M-sport. Be­fore

2017’s open­ing round in Monte Carlo, Autosport fielded more than a cou­ple of calls from the Dovenby Hall HQ ask­ing what Ogier would be like to work with. It was a tricky one to an­swer. His de­par­ture from VW was fol­lowed by sto­ries hint­ing at high main­te­nance.

In the end, noth­ing could have been fur­ther from the truth. Ogier doesn’t come from a back­ground of great wealth; his is a pretty or­di­nary, hard­work­ing French fam­ily from the moun­tains. If there were any airs and graces, they were left at the door.

From the mo­ment Ogier and In­gras­sia walked into Dovenby, they knew the score. That’s not to say they weren’t de­mand­ing – they were. But they picked their bat­tles. Ogier was cer­tainly not go­ing to ar­gue about the ab­sence of a third or fourth PR per­son or the lack of a mez­za­nine level in the hos­pi­tal­ity area. Or even the fact that he had to share crew room with any M-sport cus­tomers com­pet­ing – eat­ing along­side a va­ri­ety of pri­vate Fi­esta R5 driv­ers kept it ‘real’ from early on.

What did mat­ter was the need for more torque from the en­gine. Or a new damper spec­i­fi­ca­tion for Fin­land. Or an ex­tra day of test­ing for Wales. Those things counted. Ogier fought those bat­tles and usu­ally won.

“I don’t re­mem­ber Mal­colm ever telling me no when I asked for some­thing,” he says. “When it came to the car, when it came to win­ning, he al­ways found a way.”

Ogier had en­joyed good re­la­tion­ships with team man­age­ment be­fore. At

Citroen, he and Olivier Ques­nel worked well to­gether, and he was on the same page as Jost Capito and Sven Smeets at

VW. But they were part of a cor­po­ra­tion, cogs in a wheel made to sell metal.

In ral­ly­ing, Wil­son sees a dif­fer­ent pic­ture. And Ogier loved that. When

Ogier and In­gras­sia went to their first pre-sea­son M-sport team meet­ing, they were told they would be eat­ing – along with Ott Tanak and El­fyn Evans and their co-driv­ers – at Wil­son’s house.

“I didn’t do that be­fore,” says Ogier, smil­ing at the rec­ol­lec­tion. “I’d never gone to my boss’s house for din­ner.

Never. I was a lit­tle bit sur­prised…”

He shouldn’t have been. That was Wil­son’s way of wel­com­ing them and paint­ing them into the pic­ture.

“It was fan­tas­tic,” says Ogier. “The food was beau­ti­ful. Elaine is an amaz­ing cook.”

Ogier’s past two years with M-sport have been a real jour­ney. He’s learned plenty about the eco­nom­ics of mo­tor­sport, seen a lot of life at the coal face. And he’s got noth­ing but ad­mi­ra­tion for what Wil­son achieves.

When it was time to sign off from Dovenby, at a fi­nal get-to­gether in early De­cem­ber, it was dif­fi­cult to know what to ex­pect. In the pre­ced­ing weeks, we’d heard plenty about the hu­man story that Ogier, In­gras­sia and Wil­son had forged while win­ning the driv­ers’ and co-driv­ers’ ti­tles for the past two years – with the 2017 man­u­fac­tur­ers’ ti­tle in there for good mea­sure. But it was now time to go.

Com­per­ing the cel­e­bra­tion, the ebul­lient Howard Davies had raised his glass and com­manded a toast to the world cham­pi­ons. Briefly, it looked like the mo­ment might have passed. Wil­son had of­fered words full of feel­ing and wrapped in emo­tion.

Ogier waited for the ap­plause to die down. He wanted to say some­thing, but caveated his words with the ad­mis­sion that he wasn’t gen­er­ally an emo­tional per­son: “Two years ago we were hav­ing some hard

times. The team where we achieved so much and worked so hard had a new car for the fu­ture, but sud­denly it stopped. It felt like the world was fall­ing apart.

“But like ev­ery time in life when you have this kind of thing, you have to over­come it. And, at the end, it was one of the best things that hap­pened to us be­cause it gave us all the op­por­tu­nity to meet all of you and to be part of this fam­ily. We dis­cov­ered feel­ings I prob­a­bly didn’t have be­fore; ev­ery­one knows how much I re­spect Mal­colm, but it’s the same for all of you guys. Thank you.”

Stand­ing in M-sport’s vast fa­cil­ity on a chilly win­ter’s af­ter­noon, Autosport had won­dered how the place could gen­er­ate any kind of an at­mos­phere. Even with close on 300 peo­ple stand­ing, lis­ten­ing and clap­ping at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, we were in one cor­ner of a big build­ing. The mo­ment would surely be lost to all that space. Not a bit of it. The elec­tric­ity Ogier’s words gen­er­ated was just in­cred­i­ble. Tears gath­ered in the cor­ners of eyes.

Elaine’s seen the stars come and go, from Car­los Sainz to Colin Mcrae, and Mar­cus Gron­holm to Mikko Hir­vo­nen.

But th­ese guys are spe­cial.

“We’ve learned a lot from them,” she says, “but I think they’ve learned from us as well. Seb talks about the hu­man side of the story and that’s what we’re about, and maybe they’ve learned some of that about the feel­ing, the pas­sion and the emo­tion that we’ve all felt for hav­ing them with us.

“We’ve had this with a lot of driv­ers, but, you’re right… th­ese guys have been spe­cial.”

And, typ­i­cally with M-sport, they wanted to share the mo­ment with as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble – which meant some lucky mem­bers of the sup­port­ers’ club were in­vited along.

Jane Smith was one of them. “This means the world to me,” she says. “I’ve said to all of th­ese guys, to­day’s bet­ter than my wed­ding day! I’ve had a rub­bish

year: I’ve had breast can­cer, some­body crashed into my bloody car and I just thought, ‘If any­thing else hap­pens this year…’ And then I got the call to say my name had been drawn from all of the [M-sport] sup­port­ers.

“This is the best thing ever. I think Seb and Julien prob­a­bly thought, ‘Who is this mad English­woman pounc­ing on me do­ing the con­ti­nen­tal kisses?’ It’s been awe­some.”

The irony of pro­fes­sional sport is that by the time they were say­ing their good­byes, Ogier and In­gras­sia had al­ready tasted Citroen’s C3 WRC in prepa­ra­tion for 2019.

Analo­gies with part­ners play­ing the field were dis­patched. No­body was buy­ing them. Ogier had been quite clear that his pre­ferred op­tion was to stay where he was. “We all know it was com­ing to a point where the sup­port of a man­u­fac­turer

[Ford] was not present enough with Mal­colm and that was what was miss­ing the most,” ex­plains Ogier.

Wil­son was per­fectly clear from the out­set. He could only fund this ad­ven­ture for one year. He man­aged two. Com­mer­cially speak­ing, three would be sui­cide. He lis­tened to his head.

As th­ese words are be­ing writ­ten, the cost of those world ti­tles and six WRC wins in two years is still be­ing cal­cu­lated in Cock­er­mouth. And the cloth be­ing cut to fit the com­ing sea­son. Will M-sport be in the world cham­pi­onship? Most likely, yes. But the chances of win­ning are dras­ti­cally re­duced – and that’s no slight on Evans or Teemu Suni­nen, who are both fine driv­ers and great prospects.

But nei­ther of them is an Ogier.

With the cham­pi­ons out of the door and off to the Wil­sons’ place for the last sup­per, the party, the mo­ment and the era was over. But the mood was any­thing but melan­choly. Cliched as it sounds, this started out as a cel­e­bra­tion and re­mained as such.

Rich Mil­lener, Wil­son’s deputy on events, worked closely with Ogier and In­gras­sia. As much as any­body, he’s en­joyed the sun­shine. And, in the knowl­edge that show­ers might fol­low, he made the most of it.

“In lots of ways,” he says, “I think we got this right. We’ve had two very, very good years with them, won two from two [driv­ers’ ti­tles] and three from a pos­si­ble four [driv­ers’ and man­u­fac­tur­ers’]. That’s bet­ter than hav­ing them with us for longer, for five years or some­thing, but only win­ning a bit.

“It’s tough when they’ve gone. We’ve got used to them be­ing here and, of course,

we’ve got used to win­ning. It’s go­ing to be dif­fi­cult see­ing them in a dif­fer­ent team. In a way, it’s quite hard know­ing they’ve gone al­ready; they’re al­ready work­ing and test­ing with a dif­fer­ent team. But we’re not wor­ried about that – we’re bet­ter than Citroen!”

But Citroen is the fu­ture for Ogier now. At least for the next two years. He has al­ready said his re­turn to Ver­sailles rep­re­sents the fi­nal act in his WRC ca­reer. Just 28 ral­lies re­main. Should he main­tain his cur­rent suc­cess rate, he would close this chap­ter on eight ti­tles, tan­ta­lis­ingly short of Se­bastien Loeb’s record of nine.

Put that to him and he looks slightly be­mused and points out that there re­mains the small mat­ter of ti­tles seven and eight be­fore he could even con­sider a ninth.

So what’s it like to be re­turn­ing to Citroen, with which Ogier scored his first WRC event wins in 2010-11?

“I don’t know if we can talk about com­ing home, be­cause it’s been a lot of years since I was last in the team and a lot has changed,” he says. “But it’s nice to go back to a French team

– I’m not used to work­ing in French!

There was a very nice wel­come for Julien and me in the team and I feel every­body is really mo­ti­vated by the chal­lenge.”

No­body can for­get what hap­pened there last time. Yes, it may be eight years ago, but Ques­nel and Ogier were hoofed out. And, let’s not kid our­selves, they were hoofed out at the be­hest of Loeb and then-boss of Citroen mo­tor­sport Yves Mat­ton.

When asked why it took so long for Ogier to re­turn – why he didn’t go back to France in­stead of tak­ing his trip to M-sport two years ago – he is frank. “It was prob­a­bly not the right time in my eyes,” he says. “Be­fore – and I’ve said that al­ready – they haven’t shown me enough mo­ti­va­tion to con­vince me to come back and I was happy where I was.”

With a de­gree of dev­il­ment, there’s the in­evitable fol­low-up about whether Mat­ton’s de­par­ture and Pierre Bu­dar’s ar­rival in his place might have had some­thing to do with the move. “Def­i­nitely it was im­por­tant,” adds Ogier. “It’s no se­cret I was never close with Yves Mat­ton and when you have a dif­fi­cult con­nec­tion it doesn’t help find agree­ments.

“With Pierre, it was dif­fer­ent from the be­gin­ning. The first im­pres­sion was good and, so far, I still like the way he is work­ing. He has shown me a big mo­ti­va­tion to turn things around and bring the team back to where they used to be, and one of the el­e­ments for that was to put me back in the car. I will do my best to help him.”

When he walked away from Citroen at the end of 2011, ev­ery­thing had be­come all too per­sonal. This time, it’s strictly busi­ness.

Ogier clinched his se­cond ti­tle for M-sport in 2018 Aus­tralia fi­nale

M-sport farewell gath­er­ing was one of cel­e­bra­tion

Ogier has al­ready started test­ing the Citroen C3 WRC (below)

Ogier scored seven wins for Citroen across 2010-11

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