Andrew Miles dons his Rally jacket in praise of the WRC.
For the past fifteen years, should you be named Sébastien and you hailed from France, you were World Rally Champion. No-one got else got a look in. Some came agonisingly close, but nine championships went to Sébastien Loeb whilst the other six fell Sébastien Ogier’s way.
That is until late in October in Catalunya, when rally fans the world over witnessed a new dawn. Ott Tänak from Estonia was the new boss, finally. And then promptly four days later informed the world he was to leave Toyota Gazoo Racing, his employers for the last couple of years by heading off to Hyundai for next season. That’s gratitude for you. There should have been a final round held Down Under, sadly the bush fires cancelled the event at the last moment.
Leaving our cynical ways in a cloud of rally dust, let’s rewind the clock to 2003. Norwegian Petter Solberg won that year on the Rally GB stages in his eternal blue bodied and gold wheeled Subaru. From then on, Citroëns began to dominate with the youthful Loeb behind the wheel. Successfully partnered by the cheekily grinning co-driver Daniel Elena, the floor was well and truly swept by these two.
Rally stages were conquered with apparent ease, the competition rarely getting near to Loeb’s Michelins peppering the advertisement hoardings. Gravel or mud had never been flung as far, nor stung so hard for his rivals.
At least the rally cars back then looked like something you could purchase. The lad hailing from Alsace began his WRC winning ways piloting a Xsara coupé, followed by a C4 coupé afore bowing out in a DS3. Stage wins galore brought rally victories. So far in front was he in 2006 that even a broken arm and subsequent absence from competing in four events, his rivals could not overcome. Ensconced at home, informed you’re champ, again, he said was “surreal.”
In 2010, another Sébastien appeared within the Citroën fold, one Ogier from Alpine town of Gap. Whereas Loeb had a naturally occurring talent (being a prominent gymnast in earlier life), charismatic style and effortless good looks, Ogier imbued an altogether different side. Cold, calculating and brutally effective, their time together at Citroën as team mates was short lived and decidedly cool.
But by this time, Loeb’s dominance over such luminaries as Marcus Gronholm, Mikko Hirvonen, Jari-Matti Latvala and his perennial bridesmaid team-mate, Dani Sordo was to end with his ninth straight championship. Whether politely told to bugger off and let someone else have a go or not is open to debate. On closing the Citroën door, a new, German door opened, to be doled out on the special stages.
Volkswagen Motorsport brought their Polo R with nothing but total and utter domination in mind. Whilst Loeb was sampling World Touring Cars and dabbling with Le Mans, it was Ogier and suave co-driver Julien Ingrassia’s turn to up the ante. The team led by floppy fringed German, Jost Capito, once more let no one else get a look in. As with Loeb, mistakes or mechanical maladies were rare for Ogier. A swift four years brought four championships and just as swiftly, VW left. Ogier moving to M-Sport and a Fiesta and two more overall victories before a return to his French compatriots Citroën for the 2019 season.
Battling with a frequently difficult to handle DS3, Ogier still managed to stay near the front with rivals Tänak and Belgian Thierry Neuville. But the struggle became too much. Tänak flourished, Neuville mopped up Citroën’s problems and the Sébastien dynasty was over. Ogier was visibly deflated, to the extent he opined 2020 will be his final season. Seems it’s actually Citroën’s as Ogier veers towards Toyota and the esteemed French squad disappears from the stage. A great shame.
The Thirty two year old Estonian was now king of the hill. His career though has oftentimes been as rutted and bouncy as that of the stages driven. Showing very early potential raised him from the junior ranks to the WRC. However, some questionable decisions on attempting to win at all costs rather than guiding him and co-driver Martin Jarveloa to a points finish developed him into a nearly man; the initial euphoria tempering to team bosses in a quandary over his positioning. Tänak being placed on the snakes and ladders board; moving up to M-Sports top man then demotion the DMACK tyres junior squads: and back again.
Barring his and then co-driver Raigo Mõolder’s spectacular México 2015 crash, where as if tumbling down fifty feet wasn’t bad enough, a lake drowned the car and occupants in seconds – luckily both escaped and the car later recovered, repaired and re-rallied within hours, he matured.
Check the crash and subsequent retrieval on You Tube.
Results began to tot up, an evenness to his flow, his commitment, his style and skill. As Ogier’s grip loosened and Neuville’s erroneous ways sometimes showed, Ott was there to pick up the prizes. His first victory was Sardinia in 2017 after the heartbreak of Poland where mechanical failure robbed him of an assured win.
2018 and a move to Toyota where the cars now resembled nothing of what Joe Public can buy. The fight was on all season long with Tänak taking four solid victories but that final hurdle still proving to be an Ogier-sized barrier. But the Estonian smelled blood, locking out the others for 2019 with a decisive six victories. Fruition; finally.
Now he’s ditched the Land of the Rising Sun (based in Finland) for a German based Korean charge, will he now take up the dominating mantle as the Sébastien duo did so handsomely? Only time will tell. Add in copious amounts of gravel, mud, sweat and tears. He may appear ice-cold at times but Tänak has warmed up the WRC no-end.