Who is the greatest, Sébastien Loeb or Sébastien Ogier? It’s a question many – including DirtFish – have asked, and will continue to debate. But what we can all agree on is the 2022 Monte Carlo Rally has produced a captivating fight between these two titans of the World Rally Championship.
Loeb and Ogier have battled for rally wins on far fewer occasions than you might think, which is what is making the squabble on this year’s season opener – the first rally of the hybrid era, no less – such a treat to witness.
Both have taken turns at leading the rally and being in the supremacy. It was Ogier who cleaned up on Thursday evening to grab both stage wins and lead Loeb by 6.7 seconds overnight. But, not to be outdone, Loeb put Ogier in his place on Friday with a devastating run of four stage wins to carve out a 15.9s advantage over his rival, who had briefly slipped to third.
Ogier responded on the final pair of Friday tests to trail by 9.9s at close of play, but Friday unquestionably belonged to Loeb.
The balance tipped once more on Saturday as Loeb’s pace dropped and Ogier kept up his rhythm. The two great champions drew level after SS10 but it will be SS13 – after Ogier had nosed ahead by just five seconds – that will likely be reflected upon as the turning point of this battle for the ages.
The Sisteron stage, officially named Saint-Geniez / Thoard on this year’s itinerary, proved challenging on the first pass. Presenting the crews with the only ‘true’ Monte conditions of the event thus far, the start and finish of the snaking asphalt stage were dry but the middle was an ice rink.
Elfyn Evans and Ott Tänak both found this out to their cost. Tänak – on slick tires – whacked a rockface that ultimately led to his retirement from the event, while Evans misjudged his braking – ironically on a dry section of the stage – and with it saw his podium hopes evaporate.
The expectation was that some of the ice would have melted the second time round, but this proved to be wide of the mark. Loeb was one such driver who anticipated a drier run, receiving information from his route note crew that slick tires might actually be the smart choice.
Loeb opted for a different tire strategy to Ogier before they had even reached the stage. The pair had actually spoken to each other at the lunchtime tire fitting zone about the tire choice they were leaning towards – Loeb revealing “we respected it so there was no plan”.
Both drivers took four soft tires and would use them for dry Saint-Jeannet / Malijai stage, but Loeb had thrown some studded tires in the trunk of his Puma while Ogier had strapped down a couple of winters.
Whose choice was wiser? As it transpired, we never got to find out. Instead, Ogier was tactical and mimicked Loeb’s decision to keep the slick tires from the previous stage on the car. It would all come down to the driving.
“I’ve started to know him after all these years and I was guessing that he would try something,” said Ogier at the end of the day.
“I was waiting a bit to see him on the road section and then I saw just before the start that he was going to go with slicks. We thought that it would not be the best choice but still I wanted to have a straight fight, to not have any different tire choice that would make the difference.
“Then I said, ‘OK, if he goes with this I’ll go with the same’ and then may the best win and survive.”
“This [slicks] was not the plan but when I spoke with my gravel crew they said, ‘It’s not stupid, the slicks’ and then I decided to try,” added Loeb.
“Séb saw that at the last moment because I was a bit stupid and I parked next to him, but I didn’t know where he was on the road section and I stopped too late!
“He saw it, and he changed to the slicks also.”
When it was put to Ogier that Loeb felt he had been “stupid”, allowing Ogier the chance to nullify his tactical gamble, Ogier was quick to point out that he would have actually been quicker had he not made the late swap.
“It was not the right tire choice,” he said. “The only thing I wanted to cover at this moment was to make sure we fought in the same conditions and didn’t have any surprises on the strategy.
“But we saw that Kalle [Rovanperä] with snow tires was faster on this stage, so I had a really good stage I believe and I managed to take a lot of time on him [Loeb], especially on the snow section. But it’s always challenging when you have to go on this snow on slick tires.
“At least I enjoyed the Tarmac section. It was the first time because most of the time with a cross it’s not so fun, now it was at least fun on the Tarmac section.”
Ogier was second fastest on the stage, five seconds down on his Toyota team-mate Rovanperä, but the important figure was 16.1s. That’s how much Loeb dropped to Ogier, meaning he now heads into Sunday with a 21.1s deficit to try and overcome.
“I was a bit too careful on the downhill on the ice with the slicks,” Loeb rued.
“Séb was faster, it was very tricky and I didn’t want to stay there in the trees! It was really slow and I took it a bit too easy I think.”
With the conditions we expect tomorrow morning, possibly frost and ice, it will remain tricky to the end. It's definitely not overSébastien Ogier
Ogier admitted that “of course” it was a surprise for him when he discovered just how much time he had managed to pull from his rival.
“We’ve been fighting so close all weekend,” he reasoned, “but yesterday I had this stage where I lost 16s on him where, OK, I guess in that one there was also conditions and [Loeb starting] half an hour later was definitely in much warmer conditions, but it can happen on this rally, especially when you go to extreme conditions, and extreme conditions it is when you drive with slick tires on ice and snow.”
It’s always tantalizing when two titans of a sporting discipline go head-to-head, and that makes Ogier’s tactical play just that little bit more special.
But this one’s not done yet. There’s still a final chapter on Sunday, as Ogier knows only too well.
“It’s not comfortable,” he said of his advantage.
“It’s good to have, for sure; 21s is an interesting gap, but with the conditions we expect tomorrow morning again with frost and maybe ice – I don’t know – it will remain tricky to the end. It’s definitely not over.”
Loeb thought deeply about his answer.
“The gap’s starting to be a bit big, but we’ll see,” he said in his iconic dulcet tone. “It’s not finished before the end.”