OGIER’S TOUGH­EST TEST

WRC CHAMP ON HIS DRAMATICYEAR

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­database.com

It’s done. The Se­bastien story goes on with a sixth World Rally Cham­pi­onship chap­ter from Gap. The first thing we have to say is huge con­grat­u­la­tions to Ogier, his co-driver Julien In­gras­sia and ev­ery­body at M-sport. You earned this one.

Any­body in­volved in pro­fes­sional sport will tell you only one thing mat­ters: win­ning. But, let’s be hon­est, there’s win­ning and there’s win­ning. Usain Bolt won the 100m gold at the 2008 Bei­jing Olympics, slow­ing to take the fin­ish in 9.69 sec­onds. By his own stan­dards, he’d walked it. And his talked-up, hyped-out ri­val Tyson Gay didn’t even make the fi­nal.

Back to the Bird’s Nest seven years on and Bolt squeezes Amer­i­can Justin Gatlin to gold by one-hun­dredth of a sec­ond. Ask fans about one Bolt race and that 2015 world cham­pi­onship tops most lists.

Ask fans about one Se­bastien Ogier ti­tle and, from here on in, I’m sure 2018 will top most lists. It was that good.

“It was def­i­nitely the tough­est,” says Ogier. “Com­ing to the last round with only three points be­tween me and Thierry [Neuville], and Ott [Tanak] there as well... yeah, this was not so easy.”

This has been an in­cred­i­ble sea­son, with for­tunes ebbing and flow­ing for all three driv­ers. Ogier bossed the start of the year, win­ning three from the first four.

But then it was Neuville’s mid­sea­son; who could for­get his out­stand­ing Sar­dinia win, where he over­turned Ogier’s 0.8-sec­ond ad­van­tage with a stun­ning pow­er­stage to hit the beach and win by just seven tenths.

He was mag­nif­i­cent; that stage was as good as any­thing I’ve seen in ral­ly­ing.

Go­ing into the sum­mer break many pre­dicted the end of the Se­bastien story. He was 27 points down with just six rounds to run – the cham­pi­onship was most def­i­nitely Neuville’s to lose.

But what about Tanak? Sure, he’d got a fast car and he had won in Ar­gentina, but the Toy­ota’s frail­ties and/or a heavy-handed Es­to­nian ap­proach seemed to have ruled him out of this one. No one se­ri­ously saw him as a ti­tle con­tender mid-sea­son.

He headed for his hol­i­days with 77 points on the board; Neuville was slap­ping on the shades and sun­tan lo­tion with 149 to his name. Tanak would surely have to wait an­other year.

Then he won in Fin­land. And Ger­many. And Turkey. De­part­ing Asia, Ogier was down to third, Tanak was up to sec­ond and just 13 points off the lead.

Tanak had found the big­gest of waves and was ready to ride it all the way from Wales through Spain and on to New South Wales. Neuville and Ogier were floun­der­ing, Tanak flour­ish­ing.

The first day of Rally GB was by no means the ic­ing on the cake, but it was the ral­ly­ing equiv­a­lent of the ic­ing be­ing put into the ic­ing bag. Talk­ing to Tanak at the end of the sec­ond run through Pen­machno, things were look­ing good.

He’d won five of the eight for­est stages and was 28.8s up on the ev­ery­body. His mood was good as he pulled grass from the side of the road to wipe the mud from the win­dows of his Yaris.

I’ve known Tanak long enough to know he’s not one to sell you a line; it’s not what he’s about, not what he does. He chooses his words care­fully and the ones he uses are worth lis­ten­ing to.

Here was a man firmly in con­trol of his own des­tiny; here was a man des­tined for the top of the world.

A day later and his car was bro­ken. Three weeks later and it was up and down again in Spain af­ter a punc­ture robbed him of an­other lead. And in Aus­tralia, he was all out of re­mark­able re­cov­er­ies. All he could do was put ev­ery­thing on the line and push for the win.

It was the same story for Neuville. He too had no op­tion. To be be­hind Ogier was – power stage bonus points not­with­stand­ing – to be nowhere. But with only a three-point buf­fer go­ing into the fi­nale, there was no way Ogier could se­ri­ously con­sider any­thing other than a max­i­mum at­tack.

All of which com­bined to present us with the most in­trigu­ing fi­nale on the Coffs coast half­way be­tween Syd­ney and Bris­bane. Win­ner would take all.

As each of the three dryly ob­served at some point in the lead-up: “There can be only one world cham­pion. Two of us will go home un­happy.”

But be­fore any­body went home, the sea­son had three more days to run. And those three days con­tained some of the trick­i­est roads of the year. Sat­ur­day was a par­tic­u­lar toughie, with so much gravel sit­ting on su­per-fast roads cut­ting through the coun­try­side.

There’s noth­ing to test a driver’s nerve like that feel­ing of numb­ness when you turn into a cor­ner at 100mph and noth­ing hap­pens. There’s a nano-sec­ond be­fore the me­chan­i­cal grip backs you, the aero loads up to give you a southerly shove and you be­gin to change di­rec­tion. It feels like an eter­nity, but back­ing out of the throt­tle is not an op­tion. You back your­self. You send it. That’s life on the knife-edge. And that was what Rally Aus­tralia was all about.

It was walk­ing the line, run­ning the risk and the cham­pion would be the one who made the least mis­takes. Ogier knew that bet­ter than any­body. Key to this deal was be­ing able to re­lax into the job and drive nat­u­rally. Force it and you could for­get it.

Be­fore the start, lis­ten­ing in on the one-lin­ers, two of them stood out. The de­fend­ing cham­pion played the game beau­ti­fully. “I re­mem­ber,” he said, “what it’s like when you are push­ing for your first ti­tle, it means so much. I have five of them now and, sure, I would like a sixth... but it’s not go­ing to change my life.”

Neuville groped for some sort of re­sponse and came up with... “In his sit­u­a­tion, it’s al­ready some­thing pos­i­tive to know that I se­cured my fu­ture al­ready.

“So if the cham­pi­onship won’t hap­pen this year – and hope­fully it will – I know I have more chances to come.

“That re­laxes me a lit­tle bit.” Re­ally? “Hope­fully it will... Re­laxes me a lit­tle bit.”

I’m no kind of psy­chol­o­gist, but even I could see one driver ar­rived into Fri­day fly­ing higher than the other. And that’s how it played out.

Ogier was supreme and inch­per­fect on his way to an­other ti­tle. Tanak and Neuville threw ev­ery­thing at it; both were fan­tas­ti­cally brave and ut­terly com­mit­ted, but they made mis­takes.

They came up short. They ended their sea­son in the trees. Ogier ended his fly­ing home with an­other ti­tle firmly stowed. It’s been one heck of a sea­son. One heck of a story. ■

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