There’s not a trace of torment in Sébastien Ogier’s voice. To the Frenchman it’s a simple statement of fact. This whole youth thing in the World Rally Championship… he’s not really buying into it.
With the 19-year-old Oliver Solberg joining a 20-year-old Kalle Rovanperä in the ranks of world rallying’s elite at last month’s Arctic Rally Finland, it was inevitable the talk would shift towards the next generation. The young guns. Even more reason when Solberg battled hard with his hero Ogier for much of Saturday in Lapland.
Going into the event, Harri’s boy was increasingly seen as the pre-event favourite, with DirtFish unashamedly playing its part in generating that hype. Departing the frozen north, the series had its youngest ever championship leader.
And then there’s Ogier, the man who, prior to the arrival of COVID-19, had assured everybody last year would be his last. This season represents retirement plus one for the seven-time world champion.
Tempting him to engage in the debate of youthful exuberance versus age and experience, he happily jumped in.
“I don’t pay any attention to this ‘youngest’ thing,” Ogier told DirtFish. “It’s just a different generation.
“OK, Kalle is young in age, but not in experience. He is a talent, there’s nothing new in that, we knew this already. But now he has some experience of these cars and obviously [in Finland] he was at home.
“He was strong, he was disappointed not to win, but [second place] was still a strong result for him.
“You know, this is good for us, it’s good for the team to have him even more at the front now. The plan for this year is definitely to win both championships and it’s going to be interesting – I think you know I mentioned from the beginning [of the season] that he would be in the fight [for the title].”
It's like he's three years ahead of me if I think about where I was back thenJari-Matti Latvala on Solberg and the WRC's youngsters
The key point from Ogier there is the difference between age and experience. Rovanperä has been driving rally cars since he was eight years old. And let’s not beat about the bush here, he’s been driving them with increasing speed since he was eight years old.
I remember watching an onboard of him in the Latvian Championship driving a Škoda Fabia S2000 not long after his 15th birthday.His understanding of where to put the car, where to find the grip and the most efficient way through corners was almost as incredible as the sheer speed at which he was pedalling the thing.
It was exactly the same with Solberg. Remember when he went to America for the first time?
Granted he was 17, but to take hold of an open class 350bhp car like that Subaru WRX and have such an innate understanding of what to do and how to do it was spellbinding. But not surprising.
I well remember a conversation with an excited Petter Solberg, the first time he genuinely couldn’t beat Oliver on a frozen lake in a Group N car.
“I was pushing like hell,” said the 2003 world champion. “Honestly, you know me, I didn’t want to be beaten, but I couldn’t beat him.”
Oliver was 13. And quite possibly sitting on a cushion.
Ogier’s Toyota team principal and the WRC’s most experienced driver, Jari-Matti Latvala, has been “very, very impressed” with the speed of the next generation who he feels are “three years ahead” of where he was when he burst onto the WRC scene in 2002 as an 18-year-old himself.
“I said to Petter earlier that when I was 18 I could get one second per kilometer close to the top guys and I think the level where he [Solberg] is now I was able to be when I was 21,” Latvala said.
“So imagine what kind of speed he has with that kind of experiecne. It’s like he’s three years ahead of me if I think about where I was back then.
“For sure life back then was different,” Latvala added.
“I think also this is now the fact we have been chasing in the rally world: you start younger, you come in younger and it seems that the younger boys are a little bit more mature nowadays than that time when I started.”
But, for all this talk of the young generation coming, it’s still Latvala who holds the record for the youngest winner of a WRC round ever. And behind him? It’s Henri Toivonen and then Markku Alén.
And, don’t forget, the youngest ever world champion is still Colin McRae at 27 years and 109 days.
Granted, the next generation has time on its side, but the old boys are still the ones with their names written on the wall.