Walking into Wednesday night’s celebration of 50 years of the World Rally Championship, Sébastien Ogier shook his head and offered a rueful smile.
The Frenchman – a driver with 16% of all the WRC titles next to his name – said exactly what I was thinking.
“It’s quite an honor to be in the room,” he said. “So many names, so many legends…”
For the record, there were 17 world champions with 40 world titles between them – and 25 of the cars used to register those victories were parked right outside.
It’s fair to say Wednesday night in Matosinhos was a special moment. A very special moment.
My memories were everywhere.
There was Walter Röhrl, Ari Vatanen, Michéle Mouton, the ones who introduced me to the sport. The ones whose model cars I built. Then crashed.
Miki Biasion, Carlos Sainz and Louise Aitken-Walker bridged the ’80s to ’90s and cost me no end of detentions when I considered reading Motoring News or Autosport far more important than Mr Harris and his simultaneous equations.
Starting my career meant a late ’90s, early ’00s introduction to co-driving heroes who would become friends in Robert Reid, Nicky Grist and Derek Ringer. And then there was Marcus Grönholm, Petter Solberg, Sébastiens Ogier and Loeb and Ott Tänak – the drivers who have defined the most recent generation.
Like I said, a night not to be missed.
Moving from decade to decade, it was fascinating to listen to the stories once more. The years simply melted away as Röhrl recalled his game-changing run through Arganil in 1980 (the one where he went four minutes faster than anybody in the fog).
Vatanen had his own story of the same event. And Ari’s was just as entertaining as he reminded us about going off the road at the same corner as team-mate Hannu Mikkola. The Finns’ Fords collided, leaving AV with a question of his own.
“When the crash stopped we were the right way up, but I looked around and I could see the word ‘Rothmans’ upside down,” he said. “I was thinking to myself: ‘What has happened? Did we make a corkscrew out of our car?’
“David [Sutton, team owner] was not so happy, but Rothmans got good publicity!”
One of the highlights of the evening was personally seeing Mohammed Ben Sulayem in his role as FIA president for the first time.
The energy and enthusiasm the 14-time Middle East Rally champion brings to the leadership of world motorsport’s governing body is as refreshing as it is revolutionary. He’s a genuine rally man with our sport at his heart. Talking to him and his deputy Robert offers a huge amount of confidence.
There are no hoops to jump through in an effort to be granted an audience, only to be usurped by a stakeholder or sponsor with far more important flesh to press.
Those days are gone. Both make it clear: they’re on the end of the cellphone. They don’t have all the answers, but they’re certainly asking the right questions.
But that’s looking forward. Thursday night was about reflection. And celebration.
With that in mind, here’s Ben Sulayem’s memory of working with Toyota on the Safari Rally in the 1990s.
“We were told to follow the leaders,” he said. “Don’t forget, in those days, the roads were open. We were driving along and we suddenly got the radio message: ‘OK, stop, we need your parts.’
“No problem. I stopped the car, the team’s [chase] car comes and removes all of the parts and they leave. Suddenly, we are in Kenya, in the middle of nowhere with nobody around and we have our car on axle stands with no wheels. That was very scary, I was thinking the lions could come… but then I thought: ‘It’s OK. I’m very skinny, they’re not going to eat me!’
“I was sitting there all night, hearing all sorts of noises. The messages on the radio were getting feinter [as the communications plane flew further away]. The next morning I could hear a helicopter coming. It comes down low, but it didn’t even land, they threw the parts out, flew away and left us to fix the car!”
The past, present and the future of this great, great sport of ours were brilliant represented by Jona Siebel and his superb team at WRC Promoter in Portugal last week. Thanks to them for an unforgettable 50 years. And a brilliant Wednesday night.