When a privateer almost took down Citroën at home

Simon Jean-Jospeh has such fond memories of the 1998 season, he decided to recreate it

S.Jean-Joseph P.Pivato Subaru Impreza 555 Mont-Blanc ’22-163_1656x1104

When a driver reaches the World Rally Championship, and wins the European Rally Championship twice, you’d expect those years to live fondest in their memory.

Simon Jean-Joseph certainly looks back on those periods of his career fondly – particularly his first ERC-winning season in 2004 when he achieved some “crazy” things with a Renault Clio S1600.

“I will say that was the best period of my career,” Jean-Joseph tells DirtFish, “but the best memory of my career is maybe and certainly 1998, yes.

“It was fantastic.”

R. 1000 Miglia 2004

On the face of it, that’s a puzzling statement given Jean-Joseph didn’t even win a title that season. In fact, he missed out on the French national championship by an agonizing 0.4 seconds.

But 1998 was the year that put Jean-Joseph on the map and earned him a WRC chance with Ford. It was a year where he punched well above his weight and almost came up trumps. It was a year he simply won’t ever forget.

“In 1997 I did the amateur championship with a Subaru and I won,” Jean-Joseph remembers.

“It was six rounds of the French championship, and I was immediately just after the factory cars – Peugeot, Renault and myself. So I finished on the podium, I finished fourth, fifth and sometimes on the podium.

“The year after I decided to come back stronger and try to put all the chance on myself to try to make a small commando and beat the big teams.”

That meant Jean-Joseph and his modest team were up against the might of Citroën, which was rolling out its all-new Xsara Kit Car with Philippe Bugalski and Patrick Magaud at the controls.

“They had maybe 80 people on the rally with two cars and the helicopter with everything, and we were a small commando – a very small team – maybe 12/14 people and we were fighting against them, and that was completely crazy,” says Jean-Joseph.

S.Jean-Joseph P.Pivato Subaru Impreza 555 Mont-Blanc '22-97_1656x1104

Although it was a few years off its WRC-dominating days, make no mistake, Citroën was a fully-fledged manufacturer team competing in a national championship in ’98. Jean-Joseph, competing in an Impreza 555, shouldn’t have stood a chance.

The opening round of the season, Rallye Lyon-Charbonnières Rhône, served as evidence that Citroën – at this stage the only manufacturer team in the French series – was going to be incredibly tough to beat as Bugalski won by just under two minutes.

But this awoke something in Jean-Joseph. He suddenly realized what was needed to win, and set about achieving it.

“We went to the first rally and many small details were not together to make it so Citroën just killed us on the rally,” he recalls.

“After the rally we had a long and big meeting with my small commando and I said ‘look we have to improve every single detail and go to find some tenths here, some tenths there and we have to work on all the details’.

“So we started working very, very hard and fortunately for us the second rally, Alsace, we won the rally.

“Immediately we started to put the pressure on them. And then it was a fight from Alsace to the last rally.”

And so began a classic David vs Goliath chase. Bugalski and the works Citroën outfit vs Jean-Joseph and his small, loyal team.

When all worked for Bugalski, his lighter Xsara Kit Car, more than making up for its lack of four-wheel drive on the all-asphalt championship, had the edge on Jean-Joseph’s Subaru. But some driver mistakes and reliability concerns meant he was never able to swat the giant-killing Jean-Joseph away.

Back-to-back victories on Rally Mont-Blanc Morzine and Rallye Le Touquet were crucial to Jean-Joseph’s title bid, which at this point had started to garner attention outside France as Jean-Joseph threatened to embarrass a manufacturer team.

There were even suspicions that Bugalski received outside assistance when he ran out of gas on Rallye Le Touquet, as miraculously he managed to source some racing fuel and was able to continue.

The federation needed Citroën’s participation in the championship, so there was no penalty.

Citroën was certainly pressured. It had to win, and wouldn’t have expected such a challenge from a private team. Jean-Joseph meanwhile just wanted to win. There was no pressure to do so from above – just his own personal desire. He had everything to gain, while Citroën had everything to lose.

As the season intensified though, momentum began to swing back towards Bugalski and Citroën. Ahead of the penultimate round, Rallye d’Antibes – Rallye d’Azur, Jean-Joseph needed to beat Bugalski otherwise the title was lost.

S.Jean-Joseph P.Pivato Subaru Impreza 555 Mont-Blanc '22-166_1656x1104
At the end of the year we lost the championship by four tenths but we worked so hard Simon Jean-Joseph

“It didn’t change anything [for how I look back on it] but we lost the championship by four tenths at Antibes Rally,” says Jean-Joseph.

“I finished second by four tenths after three days of fighting. If you look on the internet you can find it but I think it was 3hr12m16.6s and he won for 3hr12m16.2s.”

(A check on ewrc-results.com confirms Bugalski’s winning time was 3h15m12.2s, so you’re not far off Simon!)

“Anyway, at the end of the year we lost the championship by four tenths but we worked so hard, it was such a fantastic atmosphere in the team that we still have, altogether, a fantastic relationship and we still talk together even 25 years later”,” Jean-Joseph adds.

“I would say that it was a fantastic year for many reasons because I was managing my team by myself.

“It was good in one way but on the other hand it was crazy as I was doing everything and it’s not possible for one man to do everything. That’s why I think I lost the championship also because I was completely out of energy at the end of the year and when I went to Ford I was completely flat.”

Jean-Joseph’s near miss had attracted the attention of Ford boss Malcolm Wilson, who signed him up to contest the asphalt rounds of the WRC alongside Colin McRae. Sadly, the first season of the new Focus WRC was plagued by unreliability and Jean-Joseph recorded only one top-10 finish, seventh on Rally Sanremo.

Rally Sanremo San Remo (ITA) 11-13 10 1999

“I had a problem,” says Jean-Joseph, “I was so tired at the end of ’98 that ’99 was really, really difficult for me – first because I had some health problems but second because it was not an easy year with the beginning of the Focus.

“But I still have fantastic memories of that and I will never forget that Malcolm gave me my chance, even if it didn’t work as we expected.”

Jean-Joseph’s memories of 1998 however don’t stop there, as last year he decided to recreate it.

Gathering together all the key players from the time including co-driver Patrick Pivato, team manager Frédéric Thalamy, Prodrive engineer Graham Moore and Prodrive director of customer motorsport David Campion, Jean-Joseph took on Rally Mont-Blanc Morzine in 2022 as a “flashback” project.

He explains: “In 2021 I went to Rally Mont-Blanc to help one of my friends, Jeffrey Panton from Jamaica. He wanted to do this rally and he doesn’t speak any French so I came to help him and Sébastien Loeb was there with the 306 and I saw all this enthusiasm.

“People were very enthusiastic to see… OK Loeb is Loeb, I will not compare myself with Sébastien Loeb but I understand very quickly that the people were so happy to see some legend cars.

S.Jean-Joseph P.Pivato Subaru Impreza 555 Mont-Blanc '22-145_1656x1103

“So I say to myself ‘wow maybe there is something to do’. It was so successful that I say maybe people are going to be happy if we can make it happen next year with a Subaru, and we start to work on the project and we make it.

“That was very special and I have to tell you that when we passed the flying finish on the last stage, Patrick and myself had a big moment of emotion. Everything came back like it was two weeks ago, not 25 years ago.

“It was strange for me to hear the voice of Patrick but when I say strange, [I mean] strange in the right way because for me it was many years since we worked together and everything came back very quickly like it was. Everything went automatically very well and it was smooth and good fun.”

Unfortunately the rally wasn’t trouble-free. In testing the engine broke and the replacement unit wasn’t quite as potent while there were also a few brake problems, but Jean-Joseph didn’t care.

“I decided to go to this rally without any pressure and take all the positives, I will leave the negatives.

“We had a fantastic smile, it was a fantastic weekend. The welcome from the public was great, the welcome from the other drivers was fantastic, the welcome from the media and everything was incredible – I was not expecting something like that and it was a big moment of emotion for Patrick and myself, and the team, to achieve this challenge.

S.Jean-Joseph P.Pivato Subaru Impreza 555 Mont-Blanc '22-124_1656x1103

“We finished 19th overall, I think there was something like 35 or 40 R5s and we finished 19th – it’s not a fantastic result but it’s not a bad result.

“I would say it’s a fantastic result for us because we were not expecting anything else other than to have fun. That’s the most important thing and we had, during the downhill, we had some fantastic moments in the car and we really enjoyed it.”

To commemorate the moment, and share the story of his incredible 1998 season, Jean-Joseph commissioned a 12-minute documentary film which is now available to watch.

“It’s short but it’s intense with good memories and good vibes,” he says, “and I hope you will enjoy it.”