How Ogier worked his Croatian magic

Frenchman Ogier scored another stellar win, but round four was about more than just the eight-time champion

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So, there we were, pondering a second cup of Sunday morning coffee at a service station on the main road north of Zagreb. Interviews done ahead of the first stage, the half-four alarm call was starting to take its toll.

Another espresso was probably sensible. And, anyway, what was going to happen? Granted, there had been the odd moment here and there, but the cars had remained dirty side down and vaguely in the middle of the road. And now the finish was almost in sight.

Bring on the coffee. And let’s even think about adding a slice of that custard cake.

Cue the madness. The road between Zagorska Sela and Kumrovec ruined DirtFish’s second breakfast.

Within eight minutes Adrien Fourmaux’s at the side of the road remembering how to replace a steering arm on his Puma; Ott Tänak’s Hyundai has ridden up a bank at warp-factor 10; Thierry Neuville’s sister car has bounced off a bank at not too dissimilar speed; and Elfyn Evans has rotated his Toyota through 360 degrees.

Through all of that, one car remained straight, true and very, very fast. Welcome home, Sébastien Ogier.

Absent from WRC action since January’s Monte Carlo Rally, the eight-time champion’s return to rallying’s topflight served as a timely reminder of what a class act he remains. Missing from the last two rounds, Ogier had brushed off pre-event suggestions that he could be in the race for a second career Croatian win.

For him it wasn’t sensible. Sixth on the road on Friday, courtesy of a championship position lowered by a sole outing this season, would contain his ambitions to the podium. A round four top-three would be a result according to the Gap legend.

For 17 of the event’s 20 stages, he looked on the verge of realising that prediction.

Then stage 18 happened.

So, Ogier lucked in when the two ahead lucked out? No. The Frenchman simply didn’t make a mistake. He placed his car where it was meant to be and kept it there.


Eight-time champion Ogier remains as popular as ever in the World Rally Championship

Actually, the #17 Yaris was seen at some fairly interesting angles across the weekend, with Ogier admitting he was fortunate to get away with a few moments – none bigger than Saturday’s extraordinary wall-of-death save. Exiting a right-hander, the car was gone. The left-rear was heading south down the mountain with the right-front hanging in the air. Any hint of a lift would have sent the Toyota tumbling. Ogier kept it pinned, pulled the car out of the corner, sling-shotting it into the following left-hander. Relaying that save to DirtFish, there was a wry smile.

“I think,” he said, “I had more moments on this rally than any other in my career!”

Ogier’s rarely been one for moments. He’s always been the straightest, the cleanest and generally the quickest.

The passing of time can do that. He’s in the car less these days and he’s getting older. Yes, it seems like just yesterday that he and Julien Ingrassia sent the watching world diving into to find out more about them after scoring a stunning Junior WRC debut win in México 2008. But it’s not. That was 16 seasons ago.

It’s pretty impressive to consider the pair stood on top of the world for half of those years. Sunday was Ogier’s 59th win and 100th podium. And it was a win as worthy as any of the others. He won by being there, constantly being there, on the pace and reminding Neuville and Evans that they couldn’t afford any mistakes. Because he wasn’t going to.

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The Gap star flew to a second Croatian victory in four years - helping Toyota maintain its stranglehold on the Zagreb event

Ogier made a huge down payment on his latest win with a stellar time to close out Friday. Seeing the horribly changeable conditions in SS8, Evans knew what was coming.

“I knew Séb would be quick in there,” he said. “It’s his sort of stage. I was coming out there thinking that…”

Grip changes are what Ogier gets out of bed in the morning for – you don’t win nine Monte Carlos without being able to keep your foot in when things are getting loose underneath you.

The passing of time will, inevitably, have an impact on reaction times – that much is physiological fact. It’s probably a psychological fact that, as he progresses into his forties, the desire to steal every tenth, to place everything on the line and hang the consequences fade. Wrestling his Yaris back to the road on more than one occasion last week, Ogier would likely argue that point. But he is absolute proof of the importance of experience in rallying, and last week he delved deep into his data reserves and delivered handsomely.

Not that Neuville and Evans are short on experience, they were just caught out.

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Evans lost out in the fight for the win, but the Welshman was smiling – he had fun in his GR Yaris Rally1 last week

But what a great event – it was an absolute dogfight. Dry Tarmac rallies can be bit mundane sometimes (look back to more than the odd noughties Catalunya for reference), but they can also provide some exceptionally tight competition. Friday provided 119,740 meters of competition or 74.40 miles. I don’t know for sure, but there were 10s of thousands of corners, hundreds of gearchanges, eight starts and eight finishes on a road that evolved with the passing of every single car – no two competitors had the same level of grip from one bend to the next.

Given the significance of those variables, what was the gap between Neuville and Evans? Absolutely nothing. After an hour and five minutes of driving flat out in different cars on different tire strategies, there wasn’t a tenth of a second between them.


Having spent much of this column talking about one extraordinary competitor, I’d like to talk about a couple more that were prominent across the weekend. First up, Martijn Wydaeghe. I have nothing but admiration for what he’s done since his last-minute call-up to join Thierry Neuville at the top of the 2021 season. Already a superb co-driver, he’s stepped up to become one of the absolute best. I’ve been around this sport for a while now and I’ve seen co-drivers come and go, and I have no doubt he will be a world champion.

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Wydaeghe found himself in a fairly dark place on Sunday – but the Belgian is undoubtedly a world champion in the making

And to be a world champion you need to be human and being human means you will occasionally get things wrong. There’s not a world champion co-driver out there who hasn’t called a note late. Do not dwell on this, Martijn. Seeing him shaking his head and pulling his visor down on his helmet at the stage finish was hard to take. Don’t do that, my friend. Raise your head high and keep it there. And remember the times the guy alongside you has put you in the ditch. Like Neuville said, you’re a team; you win together, you lose together – it’s the ability to deal with both scenarios that defines the character and class of a crew.

And the last person to talk about? Somebody else who Wydaeghe sat alongside: Craig Breen.

Croatia, for so many of us, will always be tinged with tragedy. Visiting the memorial to Craig was an emotional moment for many. Did it help? I’ve got to be honest and say it didn’t. This is absolutely no reflection of the place or the people. For me, Breeny will always be at the stop line of Brattby, second time through, laughing his head off and leading the rally.

Legends live on. For. Ever.


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Back in Croatia a year on from the tragedy which claimed the life of Craig Breen, the love for the Irishman remains as strong as ever