Sébastien Ogier was polite, but firm. No, thank you. Non, merci. The bottle of champagne was directed to his left. To Vincent Landais. To the World Rally Championship’s latest winner.
Being the best in the world eight times over is a big deal. Ogier knows that. He appreciates that. But on Sunday, the smile on his face spoke of an even bigger story.
Talk to him about the Monte Carlo Rally and he warms to the topic like no other. You’ve taken him home. Back to Forest Saint-Julien, just outside Gap, in the heart of the Hautes Alps. The place a young Séb fell in love with the Monte.
“This is the rally that gave me my passion for this sport,” he said. “You know this story, I talked about it a lot and I don’t want to get boring. But I love this rally – it’s what inspired me to dream to be a driver.”
And good as eight is, nine’s better. It’s unlikely Ogier will add to his tally of world titles (but not completely off the agenda – he’s only 39 and he’s never completely shut the door on the potential for a full-time return), but turning eight wins to nine on the Monte Carlo Rally was something he could do. And would do.
And probably would have done last year, if he hadn’t suffered a penultimate stage puncture.
Instead of moving two Montes clear of Sébastien Loeb, Ogier watched his countryman win and draw level at eight-all.
Gone are the deep-rooted frustrations Ogier once felt towards Loeb, the pair are good friends now – a fact demonstrated by Loeb’s social media appreciation of Ogier’s Sunday success – but it still stung a bit.
“This is a bit my rally,” said Ogier.
And this time the home hero did the job.
Ogier’s performance aboard his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 was as masterful as any I’ve seen from him. Everything worked.
Most importantly, the relationship with Landais clicked immediately. This is a partnership with a 50% success rate: two rallies, one win. Had he not suffered a puncture in Isegami’s Tunnel in Japan a couple of months ago, it could have been two from two.
Last week, it took six stages before anybody could get the better of Ogier – and then it was only by half a second as team-mate Elfyn Evans pipped him to quickest down the road from Roure to Beuil.
Ogier was utterly assured across every aspect of what he was doing. He loved Thursday night and was majestic through Friday to build a half-minute lead. After the attack came the defense and Saturday was about looking after his advantage. The narrow, occasionally rock-strewn roads to the north and north-west of Monaco were perilous and the leader wasn’t ready to risk anything.
The Yaris was wound back, offering a glimmer of hope to Kalle Rovanperä and possibly Thierry Neuville.
Ogier won this rally as much with a seat-of-the-pants Friday as a precise and perfect Saturday.
Sixteen to the good on Sunday, nobody was going to touch the master on the road out of Luceram and up the hill to Turini. He knows his way around the Alpe Maritimes as well as anybody and with conditions as clean and clear as they’ve been for years, the best of the rest were on a hiding to nothing. And they knew that.
There were a couple of issues which offered Ogier even greater urgency. Coming out of parc fermé and into service on Friday morning, something wasn’t right with the #17 car. Stepping out of it on the harbor front in Monaco, he overheard the mechanics say: “We’ll change the gearbox…”
“Immediately,” said Ogier, “I thought: ‘Oh, we’re going to start this rally with some penalties.’ We didn’t. We had 13 minutes for the gearbox change and the team did an amazing job – we still had two minutes to make the control. Honestly, I never saw anything like this before. I told the guys, there’s going to be some champagne coming to their home. It was amazing.”
Heading up and out of the principality, the morning reminded Ogier of the fragility of mechanically driven sport. He had to make the most of what he’d got.
A further reminder came within an hour or so, when the hybrid failed. The Compact Dynamics-sourced system robbed him of the extra 130-odd horses his rivals would be enjoying from time to time.
Fully fired up and with frightening focus, he tore into Friday and defied the lack of power and any nagging concerns about the transmission to power into an untouchable lead.
As DirtFish walked up and down the line ahead of Saturday morning’s first stage, the drivers opened doors and got out or stayed out with some degree of reluctance. The temperature dipped to -12C and they were working without the Sweden-style back-up of duvet-like puffa jackets and shoe-warmers. They didn’t want to be out of the car a second longer than they had to be.
And Ogier didn’t open the door. He kept his head down, watched his onboards and offered an apologetic wave as he drove away.
Who could blame him? Having spent his youth skiing at a high level, he understands the importance of keeping muscles warm and concentration, motivation and application at the highest possible level. He did just that.
That was Ogier the driver, the instinctive competitor that won’t give an inch.
As he crossed the line on the top of Turini, Ogier the single-minded racer became Ogier the thoroughly decent fella. Not to say he wasn’t always, he was. But age, family life and semi-retirement has brought added patience, perspective and generosity of spirit and understanding.
Out of the car and onto the roof, Landais looked for the hug, but paused, then the pair dived in. From then on, and despite becoming the most successful driver in the history of a 112-year-old event he adores, Ogier directed the spotlight – as well as the champagne – towards his nearly new co-driver. During the national anthem, Ogier’s arm didn’t move – it sat on Vincent’s shoulder throughout.
And when corks were popped, the bubbly was headed in just one direction, that of the WRC’s newest winner.
It was a lovely, lovely moment – as was Ogier’s recognition of what his team had done to keep him penalty-free on Friday – and a further demonstration of what a thoroughly decent bloke he really is.