Sébastien Ogier leading the World Rally Championship never used to make the headlines. It was something that was just expected, particularly during his Volkswagen pomp of 2013-16.
Even when he topped the tables after the Monte Carlo Rally this year, it wasn’t too big a deal. As imperious as his drive was to victory two months ago, the Monte is Ogier’s rally. So a win on the opening round to lead the championship wasn’t a bolt from the blue.
In isolation, an Ogier victory on Rally México wasn’t a big surprise either. Having won the event six times before, and beginning the 2023 iteration a favorable fifth on the road, Ogier’s Toyota was a clear favorite.
But for Ogier, now a part-time player in the WRC, to be leading the world championship despite missing Rally Sweden has flipped the script entirely.
My planned way into what we internally call the post-rally ‘long read’ was to question whether Ogier was still the benchmark in the WRC. He edged the new world champion in Spain, should have won in Japan, bossed the Monte and expertly judged México (yet again).
Theoretically, Ogier lifting his name to the top of the standings after entering just 66% of the rallies changes nothing about his performance – and shouldn’t have changed the direction of this feature. How he drove in México would have been brilliant regardless.
But yet that little shift in circumstance changes everything. It’s a sharp reminder of Ogier’s quality that he’s able to make fleeting visits to the WRC and continually show the full-time title challengers the way home.
It leads me to believe this is the best we’ve ever seen of Ogier.
That was an opinion first put forward to me by Colin Clark throughout the last weekend, and initially it took me by surprise. It’s certainly a big claim.
But there’s two very key reasons why I believe it to be true.
The first is, obviously, the majesty of Ogier’s driving.
It speaks volumes that Ogier wasn’t just tipped to win last weekend, he was expected to win last weekend.
Esapekka Lappi may have stolen the show on Friday, impressively going toe-to-toe in equal conditions with the driver who last year effectively dictated his program. But Ogier never looked even remotely stressed by the speed of his former colleague.
“I think it’s correct,” he said of his performance on Friday, trailing Lappi by 5.3 seconds.
“I could also push a bit more if really needed. But at the moment I am happy what I’m doing.”
And so it told.
When Lappi buckled at the first hurdle on Saturday morning, Ogier was clear – moving into a 27.3s lead you just knew he was never going to relinquish. And he had the measure of Lappi before his off too, up by 2.3s through the splits.
Ogier once again found that perfect rhythm of constantly assessing the risks and adjusting his pace accordingly, managing the tires but sending it where he felt he needed to as so clearly demonstrated by that epic 8.1s stage win on the second run of El Mosquito.
And how cheeky was that powerstage win? Ogier doesn’t need any bonus points, but he decided to grab all five of them anyway.
This, of course, is nothing new for Ogier. But for him to still be operating at this level when he’s long since ‘retired’ from being a full-time professional is simply amazing.
But life as a semi-retired driver clearly suits Ogier. He looks relaxed, under absolutely no pressure with nothing to lose but yet everything to gain.
He says not having to focus on the championship hasn’t changed his approach, but from the outside it’s clear that Ogier is simply happy – free from any stress and able to just drive.
“I always want to give the best whatever the situation,” he told DirtFish.
“So I think about the fact that I’m relaxed, it’s anyway been like this the last few years more and more.
“What I went through during my career, I think I always managed to relax myself more and more. And I have less, or how you say, still the same passion for it, the same will to win and I’m the same competitor.
“But I see life with a different perspective since many years,” he said, “and that’s maybe the reason why I get more and more relaxed.
“But yeah of course when you play a championship, it’s always a little more pressure. But at the end I don’t feel really different. I have the feeling, I come to a rally like I always have done and I want to give my best.”
In a word, it’s effortless.
Again, Ogier’s been here before. But that was when he was the firmly-established star of the WRC. The one they all had to beat.
Ogier clearly is still the one they have to beat, but he isn’t supposed to be. That’s supposed to be his 22-year-old team-mate. And that’s what makes Ogier’s current achievements so remarkable.
Ogier has developed massively not just as a driver but as a human being over the last decade and a half
But it’s marrying Ogier’s flawless driving to his aura out the car that makes the 2023 version of Ogier the best we’ve ever seen.
Once an agitated, somewhat cocky driver looking to establish himself in the world of rallying, Ogier has developed massively not just as a driver but as a human being over the last decade and a half – particularly after the birth of his son in 2016.
His stack of world championships certainly mean his words carry more weight than they otherwise might have done, but he has developed the ability to speak about important issues with a touch of class.
Take the end of the México powerstage for example.
“I am proud,” he said, “but this win is for my friend who I lost not long ago. I am thinking of him.”
Ogier then looked up to the sky, remembering his friend Tim Lobginger – a German pole vaulter who passed away to cancer five weeks ago.
And then there was the heart-warming story Ogier shared when signing a model of his 2021 Monte Carlo Rally-winning Yaris WRC for a fan on Wednesday evening.
“I remember even myself I think in 2006 maybe, no ’05 or ’04, and I was at Tour de Corse and I bought this rally plate,” he said.
“I went to ask Marcus [Grönholm], Séb [Loeb], Petter [Solberg] – and it’s still in my childhood room I guess, there’s still this plate at my parents hanging there, and luckily for me I could be part of this world, I was dreaming.
“But still I remember from there that it’s important for people, that makes them dream a little bit. And that’s why we need to take some time for them.”
Throughout his most dominant period behind the wheel Ogier struggled to win over too many fans, but now he’s become one of the most personable, kind and genuine drivers in the service park.
All while still maintaining that same trademark ruthlessness on the stages.
In many ways he’s doing the WRC a massive favor this season – first by gracing the championship with his presence but secondly for not committing to a full season as that keeps the championship alive.
He just keeps getting better and better.
“Like a good French wine maybe!” Ogier laughed.
But unlike a good French wine, there is no hangover from this success.
They say form is temporary, class is permanent. But Ogier is doing his best to remould that phrase to ‘class is permanent, and so is form’.