A moment. Just a moment. That’s all he wanted. All he took. Sébastien Ogier stood on the roof of his Toyota Yaris WRC and thought about what he’d done. Everything he’d done. Everything he and Julien Ingrassia had done.
A big part of his story, his journey, his career ended on Sunday afternoon. In the blink of an eye, he and Ingrassia have travelled from the top step of the Junior World Rally Championship podium in Mexico, 2008 on their WRC debut to the top step of the Monza Rally podium in 2021.
The intervening years have encompassed 168 WRC rounds. Statistics will show the pair won almost one in three rallies together with 54 victories – Sunday’s being the most recent. But eight was the week’s biggest number. That was the one that really counted.
An eighth title in nine years, that was what he came to Italy in the fall hunting for. And that’s what he found.
For three days, Ogier wasn’t interested in talk of emotion or farewells. He had a job to do and nothing would change that.
Ahead of the event, he talked of how tired he’d become as the season progressed. Coming out of Greece, he was pretty much running on empty – which goes a good way to explain a tepid fifth place at the following round in Finland.
Somehow, he had to fuel the tanks for one last shot in the mountains high above Milan and on the roads in and around Monza’s Temple of Speed.
He found the fuel. And then some.
The fight that wasn’t a fight (apart from when it was a fight)
As my colleague Luke Barry so eloquently described in his piece on Saturday, Ogier didn’t consider himself to be in a fight last week. He knew what he needed to do and he knew he didn’t need to win.
But what about Elfyn Evans, his only rival for the title? Now, he did need to win. But much as he wanted to win the rally – and he really did want to win the rally – he knew he couldn’t go bananas and put the Yaris WRC firmly on its doorhandles. If he did that and sent it to the trees, he would have kicked himself even harder than he did last season if Ogier’s engine had coughed and died on the final day. And this being a mechanical sport, that remained a possibility throughout.
It was the oddest of things.
And it was put into context when Swedish TV reporter Maria Wallberg asked if ‘cat and mouse’ was the best way to describe proceedings. It was the perfect way to describe proceedings.
After three days of ruling himself out of any kind of fight, Ogier came clean on Sunday and explained his 95%+ approach
On Friday, DirtFish asked Evans if he had considered the doorhandles approach.
“Depends, on how you define ‘on the doorhandles’,” he replied. “Am I touching the chicanes? No. But here you have to be trying to be focused on being clinical as much as the pushing.”
Ahead of the event, Evans had talked of the need to find the feeling with the car. The doorhandles are only achievable with complete confidence, when everything is coming naturally. This will, I promise, be the last time I mention doorhandles, but that’s where the #33 Yaris was for much of Rally Finland – but there was less risk involved because everything was flowing and the Toyota was the glove on Evans’ hand.
Monza is the sort of place you could easily put the gloves on the wrong way around.
“I wouldn’t say it’s quite that type of rally [where it flows],” he added. “I feel like I’m having to try and, of course, the car is working. I’m happy with the car, there’s no real complaints – but it’s a different kind of rally to the fast and flowing nature of Finland.”
After three days of ruling himself out of any kind of fight, Ogier came clean on Sunday afternoon and explained the thinking behind his 95%+ approach.
“Nothing was done,” said Ogier. “It was not over. Elfyn was there and putting us, not directly under pressure because we didn’t need to beat him, but the Hyundais were not far behind. So if you start to relax a little bit, you easily drop to fourth and then in fourth you have to score a point on the powerstage and you never know what happens on the powerstage. So that’s why it was never really possible to relax this weekend.”
Why were they so close?
For starters, it was all-asphalt (apart from the gravelly bits of link road at the circuit) and largely dry asphalt at that. They were in the same car on the same tires and running very close on the road – certainly there wasn’t a significant deterioration in conditions from one to the next.
Both have had two years in the car and both are equally well acquainted with the limits of the brakes and the grip, be it compound, mechanical or aerodynamic. When you have two drivers matched in terms of machinery, it’s little surprise that they’re going to be so closely tied on stage times.
Asphalt rallying generally comes with a prescribed line. There’s only one line and the grip level defines the speed from apex to exit. Breaking traction costs seconds. It’s different on the loose – there can be a fairly wide variety of lines on gravel and while backing the car in is generally frowned upon, rotating the car by sliding is sometimes the fastest way forwards.
The pair were rarely separated by more than tenths of seconds, the biggest gap coming after Evans hit the bale on the penultimate stage – a mistake that dropped him 7.6s behind Ogier. After day one, Evans led by 1.4s; 24 hours later and Ogier was half a second ahead.
Like Maria said, cat and mouse.
That said, generally speaking we saw more speed from Ogier in the hills and vice-versa when it came to the track action.
For that side, there’s less science and just a hunch. Ogier is the master of the mountains, we know that. He was born between them and he’s the most successful driver ever on the world’s most famous Alpine WRC round, the Monte Carlo Rally.
He was happier to push harder in his – and arguably the Toyota’s – natural habitat. Between the concrete chicanes, he was marginally more conservative. Touching a barrier could spell the end of everything he’d worked for all year. And he wasn’t willing to hang it out quite as much as Evans was within the confines of the Monza circuit.
Ironic then that Ogier did actually tickle the concrete with the front-right on the final morning’s opener.
“It was the only full Tarmac stage [at the circuit] and I was thinking: ‘OK, maybe at least on this one I can try to drive fast once and clean’ and this concrete is very tricky. You always feel that you are very far from it and then you start to try and go a bit closer and you come too close, and I just glanced it – luckily, because a millimeter further it would have been a real impact and it will have probably broke the wheel or at least caused a puncture.
That Ogier was still searching for that final millimeter says everything. He wanted to win. And when he finished, that was the message he wanted from the team
“I didn’t hit it really hard, I almost didn’t feel anything in the steering because it was a glance. But the sound was still a bit there and then that’s why you can see me watching my dashboard and thinking: ‘I must have a puncture now, I must have a puncture’.
“And, I think, the next kilometer I was watching the dash more than the road. But that’s part of the game. Sometimes you do a big mistake and you have no consequences. Sometimes you do nothing and you have big consequences.
“I think it was a millimeter away, so basically a perfect drive, but let’s say I didn’t try to do it again!”
That he was still searching for that millimeter says everything. He wanted to win. And when he finished the final stage, that was the message he was after from the team.
“When I crossed the line, I didn’t really know at this point [that I’d won].
“Somehow Kaj [Lindström, sporting director] was on the radio saying… I don’t know. From the message I was having a bit of a talk with Julien and we got only the championship news. I knew it was enough with the drive we had done in the stage to win the championship – but I did not know about the rally win.”
He’d done enough. Of course he had.
Don’t turn your phone off, Julien
Apart from wondering if they’d won a 54th world championship rally as well as an eighth title, the emotion flowed as they crossed the line.
Before they stepped onto the roof, there was time for a change of crash helmet. Seven stars were no longer enough.
“I ordered it three rallies ago,” revealed Ogier with a wide smile. “When we had a 44-point lead, I said: ‘OK, we can take the risk to order this new helmet with eight stars’. But I’m not sure at which point I can use it.
“I was hoping I could use it for this rally, the full rally in Monza and be champion already from Spain on, but like you’ve seen we did not have the easiest rallies recently and I’m not sure many people would bet that we would win this weekend.”
But when Ogier and Ingrassia stood on top of the car and hugged, everything felt right. They’d earned this moment. For a decade this pair have been titans of rallying. To win titles with three different manufacturers is something very, very special and to do it in the thick of such intense competition is perhaps even more so.
But what made Sunday afternoon’s celebrations even more special was Ogier’s deference to his retiring co-driver. Ogier will be back in eight weeks with Benjamin Veillas alongside him. For the first time since 2008, Ingrassia’s January will not include the Monte.
For Ingrassia, this really is the end. Which is perhaps why he jumped back on the roof for a final farewell fling. When it was suggested to Ogier that he was a legend of rallying, he smiled. Then he looked up at Ingrassia and started to clap.
“This guy, is a legend.
“It was such a weird feeling knowing that’s it now and that is really the end. We achieved much more than we were dreaming 15 years ago when we met. This scenario to end up this way is the best way possible. One more unforgettable memory that I have with Julien.
“One thing is sure: I’m going to miss him and it’s been an amazing journey… and he has to leave his phone open because you never know, I might have to call him at some point!”
Ogier and Ingrassia. Legends both.