Forgive me for reaching for a cliché so early into this column, but it genuinely holds true in the case of the 2023 World Rally Championship season so far.
Over the course of the first four rallies, you’d have to say that Sébastien Ogier was king. But over the past four, there can be little dispute that Kalle Rovanperä has returned to the throne.
Toyota’s two world champions have both been in majestic form this term – Ogier stunning to lead the championship after México despite skipping Sweden; Rovanperä finding an extra gear from Portugal onwards and absolutely dominating last weekend in Estonia.
Sounds like the recipe for quite the title battle!
Except it’s not, because Ogier’s made it very clear he’s not interested in fighting for a record-equaling ninth championship. Hence his presence this year is only partial.
So what? Rovanperä has plenty of rivals who are providing a stern challenge – Ott Tänak, Thierry Neuville, Elfyn Evans et al – and it’s only really now that Rovanperä looks to have stolen a march.
After all, the world champion was the fourth driver to lead the championship this season after Ogier, Tänak and team-mate Evans.
But as rally fans we’re greedy. And all I can wonder to myself is how would things look this year if Ogier was still a full-time rally driver?
Would Rovanperä be 55 points out front? I doubt it.
Would Rovanperä be looking so at ease? Possibly not.
Would Ogier be beating Rovanperä? That’s what I’d love to know!
Little can be read into what’s happened this year to attempt to answer that question, because the two drivers’ circumstances are completely different. Ogier just wants to win rallies, Rovanperä is chasing a championship.
But with the same goal in mind, something tells me that this could have been a supreme battle of the ages, with the added juice of the pair sharing the same team and potentially repeating the famous fallout Ogier himself was involved in with old mucker Sébastien Loeb at Citroën.
Maybe not. Maybe I’m just dreaming and getting ahead of myself, because in a sense that theory is baseless given Ogier vs Rovanperä is a battle that’s never really happened.
When Rovanperä had built up the necessary experience to genuinely fight for a title, Ogier had checked out. No more full-time campaigns, just fleeting appearances instead.
Even when they did compete together last year, when Rovanperä was marching his way towards replacing Ogier as reigning world champion, the rhetoric was of respect and admiration.
It’s not been quite as passive this year though. Remember that stunning stage time from Rovanperä at the end of Saturday on the Monte? Hardly a moment of tension, but Ogier was probably caught unaware – a moment that can retrospectively be looked back on with great interest.
Next there was the final day in Croatia, where Rovanperä was fourth and just a handful of seconds ahead of Ogier who had proved to be much quicker throughout the weekend. Officially, no team orders were given – but was Ogier deliberately driving at a pace that wouldn’t threaten Rovanperä?
Then came Safari Rally Kenya, which offered a fascinating glimpse as things really started to simmer. Again, no team orders were given to the two Toyota drivers who were 16.7 seconds apart in first and second heading into the day, with Toyota locking out the top four.
But Ogier would likely have expected there to be no challenge from his team-mate, with Toyota on course for history and Rovanperä ahead of his title rivals.
Yet Rovanperä went and halved Ogier’s deficit on Sunday’s first stage. A message perhaps?
It prompted Ogier to immediately respond on the next test, but you could sense the Frenchman wasn’t impressed that the final day became so stressful.
“I have to say yeah, I was surprised by the place he pushed, because this first stage it was roughest section of the weekend with huge rocks everywhere and he goes flat out into it,” Ogier said.
“I didn’t expect that, that’s for sure.”
Equally, Rovanperä made his point clear to live television cameras. And he wasn’t quite so subtle.
“Pressurizing Séb the whole weekend when he was taking a lot of risks and pushing hard, it was good to see him a bit nervous,” he smiled.
“I don’t know why he was all the time worrying about us and what we do,” Rovanperä then shrugged.
“Yeah… good points for the season anyway.”
It’s to Toyota’s benefit that it doesn’t have both drivers contesting every single round. As it is, it can profit from Ogier’s expertise and rally-winning ability while not threatening Rovanperä in the championship race.
But it’s our loss.
Even if there was no tension within Toyota’s four walls, which is always an intriguing narrative from the outside, we’d be treated to an epic contest on the stages between two of the absolute greatest drivers in WRC history refusing to give an inch as they hope to take a mile.
Safari whet my appetite for it; Rovanperä’s command of Estonia made me yearn.
Had Ogier been in Estonia, I fully believe Rovanperä would have crushed him just as he did everyone else.
But I don’t believe he’d be heading into Rally Finland with anywhere near as large a championship lead – and he may not even be leading at all.
So as the probability of Rovanperä successfully defending his title firmly switches from if to when, I still find myself asking if.
What if Ogier were here too?