SETTLES IN CITROEN AT ATCITROEN AT CITROEN HOW THE CHAMP IS PREPARING
Sebastien Ogier stepped out of the car and tip-toed his way towards the sanctuary of the barn. Once out of the rain, he looked down at his lovely, shiny white new driving boots. Still lovely, they were no longer shiny. Nor particularly white.
The co-author of this story, Colin Clark, sympathised with the Frenchman. So miserable was the weather, even Clark had to think long and hard before venturing out to watch. Before settling back down to another cup of coffee.
Nodding towards the boots, Clark presumed Ogier must have somebody to clean them for him.
“No, Colin,” said Ogier thinly, before breaking into a wide smile and adding: “I’m not at your level yet!”
The last time we’d seen Ogier, he’d been walking out of M-sport for the final time. Now, it was time for a clean sheet of paper. Clean sheet of paper, but a well-thumbed book.
Citroen is old ground for Ogier and co-driver Julien Ingrassia. Those boys will never forget their first trip to Citroen Racing HQ in Versailles, 12 years ago. That was the start of an incredible adventure – one that took them to the brink of world championship glory. And left them there. At the end of 2011, Ogier was told in no uncertain terms, there was no room for him at Citroen. There was room for just one Sebastien and it wasn’t him.
At the time, there must have been a part of Ogier that vowed he would go away and achieve everything he’s achieved and never darken the chevroned door again. So what brings him back?
“I think we all know it was coming to a point where the support of a manufacturer was not present enough with Malcolm [Wilson, M-sport team principal] and that was what was missing the most,” he says. “At the same time, there was some positive energy here and I was motivated by the challenge of winning with another team.”
When Ogier joined M-sport two years ago, there were plenty of French fans out there who simply assumed Ogier would be a shoo-in to Citroen. Why wouldn’t they? Loeb had gone and his successor was on the market.
Another French Seb to lead Citroen back to the top of the world… that had a ring to it, didn’t it?
Apparently not. At the time, then team principal Yves Matton said he would be interested to talk to Ogier. He just didn’t seem very interested in talking to him about having him back at Citroen.
Ogier pauses and searches for the right answer to the question about why he didn’t return earlier.
“[It] probably was not the right time in my eyes,” he says. “Before they haven’t shown me enough motivation to convince me to come back. So far I think I did a good choice in my career because the last six years have been very positive and now I don’t need to explain again why I made the change.”
Maybe Matton’s departure helped. A better way of phrasing that is to ask if Pierre Budar replacing the Belgian at the head of the table helped?
“Definitely it was important,” says Ogier. “It’s no secret I was never really close with Yves Matton and when you have a difficult connection it doesn’t help to find some 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 in this way.”
And, despite the rain which is slowly turning to sleet and snow, things are looking positive. But there is work to do.
The fact there’s work to do is a drum Ogier bangs regularly and often. He won’t say as much, but you certainly get the feeling there’s more to do than when he started with M-sport two years ago.
“There is definitely work for sure,” says Ogier. “It’s normal when you swap cars you see differences, some positive and some negatives… or let’s say something you are not used to. There’s a period of adaptation. You can never make a copy from one car to another, there’s always some differences. You need to adapt to some differences, but there are some that you can improve.
“The only thing that matters for me is to have a fast car and work in a good atmosphere, that’s the best way to achieve things. If I came here to Citroen it’s because I hope and there is the potential to be fast. We have started to work for the first two days and this gives me a good learning of the car in different conditions and what I need to do to adapt it to the conditions.”
The one thing which does concern Ogier is the optimum working window for the C3 WRC. It’s too narrow.
He’s driven the car on Portuguese gravel and now a mixture of slushy, wet and dry French Alpine asphalt. Already, he’s seen areas where the car’s not at the level it needs to be to win. “This car showed great speed in some conditions last year,” he says, “but if you check the overall result from last year and my first impression from the car is that it needs to be able to be fast in more of the conditions. It’s definitely fast on some, but not on all and that’s what we need to improve.”
Much of Citroen’s pre-monte running is based around the Col de Perty, southwest of Gap, the hometown of round one. And hometown of Ogier.
Once his work is done for the day, he’s keen to head off. He’s staying with his folks an hour or so up the road. No need for hotels in this part of the world.
“The Monte test is a special one for me,” he smiles. “It’s the first test to prepare and start a new season. And, with a new team, it’s time to discover something new. But as well as that, it’s time to see some friends and family as well. It’s busy testing time normally, but I always enjoy to do that close to my home town.”
He’s come home to Gap, that much is obvious from the number of fans and friends surrounding him every time he steps outside. But, with plenty of water under the bridge (and Matton gone) has he come home to Citroen?
“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, diplomatically. “But for sure it’s nice to go back in the French team – I’m not used to working in French again. There was a very nice welcome for Julien and me in the team and I feel everybody is really motivated by the challenge.”
It would be unfair to draw comparisons between M-sport and Citroen. Like he says, Citroen’s a very different place to the one he left just over seven years ago – and his adaptation to Cumbrian life alongside Malcolm Wilson took everybody by surprise.
Coming straight out of the corporate comfort zone of Volkswagen, the commonly held view in the service
park is that he would struggle with life as a privateer.
How wrong the service park was. He didn’t struggle in the slightest, he flourished. And found a new family.
Who could forget his sign-off speech at M-sport?
“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 for some days. But like every time in life when you have this kind of thing, you have to overcome them. 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 [in these two years]; everyone knows how much I respect Malcolm, but it’s the same for all of you guys. Thank you.”
Powerful stuff. Will he be saying the same thing about Pierre Budar and the boys in two years? Let’s wait and see.
Beyond the limited availability of development cash at M-sport, the other driver in Ogier’s departure was the chance to join Juha Kankkunen as the only other person to have won the world championship with three different manufacturers.
He did four with Volkswagen, two with M-sport. Can he do one or two in his time left with Citroen?
“The challenge will be tough,” he says. “The others are staying where they are and I give them the chance to be perfectly ready next season. But I will not be 100 per cent, not completely happy with my new car – of course I expect it to be challenging, but it’s also interesting for me.
“It’s different to two years ago when I first came to M-sport. That was the start of a new era, so the cars were new to everybody.”
Honestly, Ogier was happy, relaxed and comfortable with his lot as he takes time to look over the old tractor and even older Simca which shared this particular barn with lunch. Important as lunch is for Citroen, when you’re in the mountains you have to make do with what the mountains can provide. And this time it’s a barn, some trestle tables and a chef who can still turn out some of the finest filo-wrapped goats cheese this side of Paris.
Somebody jokes that he must be happy about the return to French cuisine after two seasons with the Brits.
Ogier laughs politely, but actually he’s having none of it.
“There was no way I was going to get thin at M-sport,” he says. “The food there was really good.”
Lunch done, he’s keen to get back on the road but a transmission set-up change means more time for more questions. Like the suggestion that he vetoed Loeb at Citroen this season. Ultimately, Peugeot’s departure from World RX meant there would be no PSA Group contract for the nine-time champion, which effectively ruled him out of a C3 WRC anyway.
But Ogier was ready to welcome him back. Providing it was on the right terms.
“Yes [I would be in the same team as Loeb],” he says. “This was included in my first discussion with Citroen. I have always been open, happy to have him as a team-mate.” And those terms? “The only issue I have, as you know, is with guys doing a temporary programme because the rules are not fitting for that. That’s not working at the moment. I’m not sure what the FIA is going to do, but at least I have given my feeling on that. I have always been one fighting for as fair rules as possible – there are definitely ways to make it better than this.”
Ogier has always maintained a firm line on this: he doesn’t want part-timers interfering with the championship fight. And, for that, reason, he can’t wholeheartedly welcome Hyundai’s latest recruit back.
He offers: “The only comment I have for that is that it’s disappointing that it’s not for a full programme – that would have been much nicer. That’s how it is. At the end of the day, it will not change our championship because if they [Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena] don’t want to do the full championship then obviously we will not focus on them, we will focus on our real competitors [for the title].”
He’s probably aware that he’s tempting the headline writers with those last words, but it’s the way he feels and his forthright views are refreshing – and very welcome – in a series which doesn’t boast the kind of powerfully outspoken characters it once did.
Fact is, Ogier’s older and wiser than the last time he was seen in red. And seeing red. If Loeb doesn’t like his views, that’s fair enough. He’s not going to change.
Citroen’s his gaff now and, if the laughter and bonhomie about the engineers’ tent is anything to go by, he’s settled back in fairly quickly. ■
Ogier is keen to get back to work with Citroen
Ogier is feeling at home back with his ‘old’ team The car has now been readied for Monte Carlo Sebastien Ogier is seeking more consistent speed from the C3 Ogier was a round winner with Citroen back in 2011