OGIER

SET­TLES IN CITROEN AT ATCITROEN AT CITROEN HOW THE CHAMP IS PRE­PAR­ING

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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

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