Recently crowned seven-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Ogier’s journey to the top followed the sort of path well trodden by many of his predecessors and current peers. But without one cost-effective – and we really mean cost-effective! – entry-level development program in his native France, even getting started in rallying would have been in Ogier’s own words, “impossible”.
That program is called Rallye Jeunes, created by the French motorsport federation the FFSA in 1994 with the simple goal of finding the country’s next world champion.
The year 1994 is an important one to remember. Didier Auriol won the WRC title for Toyota, and it would be a long time before La Marseillaise would belt out of the loudspeakers to crown a champion again. Messrs Bulgalski and Delecour would win events in the intervening years, as would Auriol, while Peugeot asserted itself as a force to be reckoned with in the early 2000s.
But an elusive drivers’ title was missing.
Then came Sébastien Loeb, himself a Rallye Jeunes finalist but never a Lauréat despite two attempts, who justified the creation of the program a hundred times over with nine consecutive WRC titles.
Ogier was one of three drivers to become a Rallye Jeunes laureate in 2005 (alongside Charlotte Berton and Nicolas Scotto) and followed Loeb’s WRC reign with seven championships in eight seasons. The dominance of both Sébs stems as a result of exceptional natural talent as well as being in the right team, in the right car, at the right time.
None of that is disputed, but the very fact that both of these wonderful careers may never have seen the light of day without the foot-up that Rallye Jeunes provides gives some indication as to the importance of such a development scheme.
Entry is a proverbial piece of cake as well. No other country offers such an accessible path into rallying as Rallye Jeunes. Normally, there are three regional selections which take place across the country before reaching a pair of nationwide shootouts. The cost? A mere €20 for drivers, €10 for co-drivers.
That’s right folks, €20 maximum. The cost to get into most Parisian nightclubs can act as a platform for rallying stardom. It’s something Ogier rates as ‘the best investment of my entire life!’
“For me, Rallye Jeunes was crucial for my career,” Ogier told DirtFish.
“I often mention that, without this I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today and maybe I would not have done any rally without the support of Rallye Jeunes. I came from…not a poor background, but my parents could never afford to bring me into motorsport, so I really needed to win the selection to start my career.
“I never felt so much pressure on my shoulders as when I was in the final of this test. I was really playing with my future and even the pressure of becoming world champion was not as high as this moment back then.
“It was all or nothing. I needed to win to start my dream and trying to work on my dream.”
The format of Rallye Jeunes has stayed the same since day one, although the venues for the regional selections and national shootouts have varied over the years.
Drivers are required to have a National B racing license and once they are accepted into the regional selections, they are put through some basic driving tests.
A knock-out style slalom course where drivers need to set the quickest times places emphasis on the technique of acceleration and hand-braking. It is split into two segments, with the fastest progressing to Stage 2, with the same elimination style sending the best talents into the national final.
Notable graduates alongside Loeb and Ogier include ex-Peugeot drivers Nicolas Vouilloz and Cédric Robert, M-Sport WRC2 frontrunner Adrien Fourmaux (2016) and the current head of Rallye Jeunes, Nicolas Bernardi.
Of the latter group, Fourmaux has proved to be the next big thing in French rallying. He has just come off the back of a scintillating 2020 campaign where he picked up three WRC2 podiums (in Monte Carlo, Estonia and Turkey, finishing second on each occasion) as well as winning the final ERC round of the year in the Canary Islands and getting his first taste of a WRC car in the Rally Legend event with M-Sport. Proof, as it were, is in the pudding.
According to Bernardi, investing in a federation-backed program dedicated to supporting the best talents in the country each year is far easier to justify than financing one driver over a longer period of time, which other federations prefer.
“The ethos of Rallye Jeunes is to give to those who don’t always have the [financial] resources to go rallying, the chance to do so in an equal manner,” Bernardi explains.
“It is a way of democratizing the sport. We don’t believe that someone who has less money than another driver is less deserving of a future if they are as good or better than that person.
“As for the structure of the program, it has always been the belief of the FFSA to invest in the continued search for the best talents in France rather than supporting just one driver or one team, like Germany has done a lot in the past with the ADAC.
“Since the start, and even before the first edition of Rallye Jeunes, the program was criticized a bit because the initial selection was held in a large parking lot. It wasn’t deemed very professional, very sporting from the perspective of those in the rallying world.
“But soon enough, everyone realized that the program had a real interest and made it far more accessible for young drivers like me to get involved.”
Bernardi was a rally fan in his youth but didn’t catch the bug as early as some of the program’s more recent laureates. Raised in the foothills of the Col de Turini, Bernardi was an avid footballer with a passion for the Monte Carlo Rally and decided to give the number two sport a go for the first edition of Rallye Jeunes in 1995.
His philosophy was “to discover the sport of rallying, why not?” and it was this endeavor which paid off handsomely; he was one of that year’s laureates, beating some guy called Sébastien Loeb in the process.
Of course, becoming a Rallye Jeunes laureate is just one small step on the increasingly steep rallying ladder. But it offers the chance for newcomers to the category to forge a tangible route towards world championship glory.
Although directed firmly at drivers and not co-drivers, the role of the latter in Rallye Jeunes is perhaps just as crucial behind the scenes. In order to make sure the drivers are given the best opportunity to hit the ground running, applicants work only with co-drivers who have experience of stage rallying.
This is to ensure that the drivers – a large proportion of which are new to rallying – are able to learn about the importance of pacenotes and understand how to build a relationship with the co-driver. It is an aspect which even the likes of Fourmaux and Ogier felt was enhanced greatly by the program.
“The first time I had to work with pacenotes, I was co-driven by my brother,” says Fourmaux. “The most difficult thing about that was learning about the distances between each corner, the angle of the corner, it’s not easy to understand when you are new.
“I am still learning about how to get the right pacenotes and it will take many years until I am completely comfortable with them, but for sure learning about them early in my career, in Rallye Jeunes and then in the first year of the FFSA Junior championship was important.”
Ogier faced a similar situation before his Rallye Jeunes experience in 2005. Although not shy on racing experience, having competed in go-karts as a young adult, the future seven-time champion had to adapt to having a passenger firing out detailed pacenotes for the first time.
“My experience in rallying was zero because I didn’t do any before Rallye Jeunes, I just practiced a bit in karting but not really competing,” Ogier explains.
“So, I would say that I had a talent for driving before and Rallye Jeunes didn’t really help me to develop my driving skills so much.
“But the most important help I got from it was getting the chance to go into my first ever rally with what I would call a small professional team – it wasn’t a professional team, but the structure was really good, and we had a good lesson of getting and understanding pacenotes at the beginning.
“I would say that was just as important as focusing on developing my driving technique and not losing much time. It also helped me to build a pacenote system already before my first rally that I could try.
“That allowed me to go fast straight away.”
Bernardi is keen to stress that Rallye Jeunes doesn’t just focus on the driving side of things. There are a number of learning sessions for its laureates which are designed to make the progression up the ladder that bit easier.
“We help our participants with how to find sponsors, which is clearly a very important facet to motorsport,” Bernardi says.
“Motorsport isn’t cheap obviously, so they need to know how to approach sponsors and build their career.
“Other areas include communication skills, media training, that sort of thing, which is also a crucial element of becoming a racing driver in the future. You need to be able to sell yourself so that you stand a chance of climbing the ladder.”
Communication in his early years was evidently not one of Ogier’s strengths, as the current Toyota driver is quick to point out. But the success of the program is clear for everyone to see as a result of its long-term vision. There’s no point in developing a French driver with the prowess of Loeb and Ogier if their personality and media persona is as sophisticated as a loaf of bread.
Key to the progression up the rallying ladder is Rallye Jeunes’ association with manufacturers. In its early years, Rallye Jeunes was closely linked with Peugeot, then the primary brand in the junior categories of rallying, particularly through its popular 206 Cup.
Ogier was a beneficiary of the Peugeot link-up in 2005 despite the PSA Group pulling out of its arrangement with the program that very year.
Ogier recalls: “It was, let’s say, kind of a special situation: the year I won the competition, was the first year Peugeot was not offering an official program to the winner of the Peugeot Cup in France, and it was supposed to be bad news for me.
“But at the same time, the FFSA was convinced of my talent and wanted to help me climb the ladder and then somehow with the discussion with Citroën, they managed to create a program for me in the Junior WRC.
“So, it was a very funny kind of situation which worked well for me. It’s also part of any success, you need to be in the right place at the right time and cross the path of the people who believe in you.”
After Citroën’s tenure as the partner of Rallye Jeunes, Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport took up the role of assisting France’s new sensations.
Ogier won his second world title with the Cumbrian outfit in 2018, while an even fresher-faced-than-usual Fourmaux was coming off the back of a dominant season in the French Junior championship, winning five out of five events he contested in a Ford Fiesta R2.
Victory in the Junior championship not only secured Fourmaux a one-off drive in a Fiesta Rally2 on the challenging Rallye du Var at season’s end, but the prize of five FFSA-backed outings in WRC2 for 2019. The first of which came at the famed Monte Carlo Rally, at which Fourmaux caught the rallying bug with his father and brother just a handful of years prior.
“My first drive in an R5 [rebranded to Rally2 in 2020] was on the Var Rally, which was so much fun,” Fourmaux says.
“I showed that I was really fast, even though I made a stupid, stupid mistake on the wet road and crashed.
“But then my second event in an R5 was the Monte Carlo, in WRC2, and I finished second [to Yoann Bonato] in the class and P10 overall. It was my first time in WRC2, so it felt good to be able to show people that I was fast enough.”
Proving your pace in the support categories is vital to shine in the eyes of the upper echelons of the WRC, and both Ogier, Fourmaux and many other Rallye Jeunes graduates have used this stage to build their careers.
Had the 2020 season gone to plan, the latest pair of Rally Jeunes laureates would have been revealed last weekend at the national final at the Nîmes Circuit de Lédenon in the south of France.
The program was supposed to kick off with the three national selections, the first at St Dié des Vosges on the weekend of November 7/8, with the second at the Circuit Actua Karting in Lyon on the weekend of December 5/6. A third, “pre-final” national selection was added by the organizers at the Lédenon circuit, two days before the national final at the same circuit.
“This year, we planned things a little bit differently,” Bernardi says.
“Instead of holding a slalom selection, [we had planned to run] a real special stage, one in St Dié des Vosges and the other during the Rallye du Var.
“Then, we would select 12 from each of those to go into a pre-final at Lédenon, whereby the fastest four would progress to the final.”
The second national lockdown in France shortly after the proposed first selection means that Rallye Jeunes has been delayed until the start of 2021.
But that’s not all that was new for 2020. The rise of esports meant that the virtual world got in on the act too, although Bernardi points out that the finances of the Rallye Jeunes program are unlikely to stretch far enough to make esports a permanent fixture for now.
An additional two selections dedicated to esports – with Rallye Jeunes striking up a partnership with the WRC 9 game – will allow gamers to reach the final round.
As for the future of Rallye Jeunes, Bernardi is of the “if it works, don’t change it” mentality and it’s hard to argue past that. Bernardi is, of course, just one personality among many hard-working staff and volunteers who make Rallye Jeunes what it is.
“I am very thankful for all the people who work tirelessly, on the organizational side, the communication side, everything is like clockwork and it has to be,” Bernardi explains.
“I have a big team helping me with everything, so I’m not alone in this. We have around 70 marshals who worked with us throughout the year as well, not on every rally but there are a lot of people who are willing to put in the time to make Rallye Jeunes happen.”
For Ogier and Fourmaux, it is clear that without the help of Rallye Jeunes sending them on the path to the top of rallying, none of their past and current success would have been even remotely achievable.
“This selection has proved many times already that it is a good platform, and that the system is working and is very efficient,” affirms Ogier.
“Obviously, Séb Loeb and I were detected in this system and even Loeb didn’t win it but somehow started rallying thanks to this. And there are many other names who started because of it, Bryan Bouffier, Alexandre Bengué, Éric Camilli.
“Motorsport is very often a sport where you need to have money to succeed, and thanks to this system in France, you can just invest €20 in this test and maybe become world champion one day like me. I always say that this was the best investment I ever made.”
Fourmaux concurs: “For sure, it’s always about the money to start with and even now, some federations are supporting drivers but for them it doesn’t start with the federation. They will support a driver who is fast or has potential. With Rallye Jeunes, you are taking everybody in France who wants to try, and making them fast and making them become a rally driver. It’s completely different but it is a very important way to start rallying in France.”
For a program boosted by Didier Auriol’s only WRC title in 1994, Rallye Jeunes has indeed set itself apart as one of the most accessible entry-level development platforms for aspiring rally drivers in the world. Its direct impact on the recent history of the WRC is clear to see in the pure numbers: 16 titles in the past 17 years good enough for you? Long may it continue!