When both Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier retired from Rally Portugal last Friday we ran a retro article, with the help of eWRC-results, charting the last time that had ever happened in the World Rally Championship.
Make sure you go and read that if you haven’t already.
What we didn’t expect however was for the two drivers who have won every world title, bar one, since 2004 to both exit the competition on Saturday too.
But unlike on the previous day where it was Loeb’s retirement – running wide and crashing into a wall – that got everyone talking, it was Ogier who caused more intrigue on the Saturday.
The reigning world champion had an understandable explanation for the lapse in concentration that led to him clipping a bank and being spat off the other side of the road – a hybrid alarm had flashed up on his dashboard and distracted him.
But the very fact that Ogier never really looked at ease throughout the entire Rally Portugal weekend was rather telling.
The presence of Ogier, Loeb and Dani Sordo at Hyundai provided the first chance to see how easy it was to adapt to these new-for-2022 hybrid rally cars.
Sordo was totally green to his i20 N Rally1, having never driven it in competition prior to Portugal. Loeb and Ogier had of course taken the controls of their Puma and GR Yaris Rally1s four months earlier and thrilled the watching world with a Monte Carlo Rally battle for the ages.
But on the first full day of Rally Portugal, it was only Loeb who didn’t struggle – and he was the member of the trio that was supposed to, with a much higher starting position than the others.
While Loeb sensationally led at the midday tire fitting zone, Ogier was down in sixth and Sordo only ninth.
“It’s a good question,” Ogier told DirtFish when asked why he wasn’t fast enough across Friday morning.
“[On the] first stage I was not really in [the zone] straight away to be honest and we had a little issue with the hybrid on stage one. But then I tried to push a bit harder, [and I’m] not super happy with the car which I find quite lazy.
“But that last one I had a better feeling, we made some changes, but the time isn’t really coming. So I don’t know. I need to try harder maybe.”
A lack of recent, relevant seat time was clearly taking its toll. Sordo was similarly not entirely at one just playing himself into the rally and the way to drive the car.
Both drivers began their ascent in the afternoon while Loeb binned his Puma. Ogier made it up to third before he ran into his puncture problems that ultimately caused his retirement, with Sordo ultimately taking that place overnight.
But adjustment was needed: “The hybrid system, it’s so difficult to manage the power,” he told DirtFish.
“Sometimes you have a lot of power and you spin a lot the wheels, you don’t know how comes the throttle.”
He then went on to call his event “really bad” at the halfway point at Saturday lunchtime.
Third place, on paper, was a sign he was having a good rally. But Sordo didn’t agree.
“I’m doing a good rally?” he replied with surprise.
“Really bad. I was clever yesterday but I missed a little bit the speed.
“I’d like to be a little bit more in front and I expected more. I’m there of course because I was clever yesterday and didn’t take any risks but I need to learn how to give the power and adapt a little bit the car to myself.
“I can’t push like before.”
By the end of the rally Sordo proved that he could indeed push like before, grabbing the final podium spot from Takamoto Katsuta’s grasp. Ogier never got that chance after his skirmish into the bank. By Sunday he was simply there to secure mileage.
Portugal wasn’t the first time we saw a driver learn Rally1 for the first time. Everyone was in that situation on the Monte, Esapekka Lappi joined the fray in Sweden and Pierre-Louis Loubet got his first try in Croatia.
But, focusing on Ogier again for the moment, there were two key things with his subdued performance: firstly that it’s simply not what he, or anybody, expects from Ogier, and secondly that it was significantly poorer than Monte Carlo.
What’s the take-away there? Simply that, as Craig Breen predicted last year “the car is so different now, it’s just not a stereotypical rally car and the adaptation takes so much time”.
Ogier, and to a certain extent Loeb, struggled with that adaptation in Portugal. Ogier has never dipped in and out of the WRC before so he’s likely never been as unprepared for a top-class event as he was last week; Loeb does at least have some experience of jumping in and out of world rallying and that’s perhaps why he was the stronger performer of the two.
But it was rare to see Ogier so uncomfortable with a car. And it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t just in Portugal; Ogier wasn’t always totally besotted with his GR Yaris Rally1 on the Monte either.
To cut a long story short, regular rallies and seat time could be more important now than it ever has been.
“It’s true that yesterday [Friday] there was still a lot of learning, especially with this hybrid use which is quite new and evolving quite a lot, very different to what I had in Monte already in the car,” Ogier surmised.
“That’s the way it is.
“The positive is experience with the car because I haven’t driven this car so much before, only one testing day in Monte plus Rally Monte Carlo and I’ve never been involved in the development of this car as I didn’t want to, so at least for the first time [for] discovering the car on gravel, I had this rally.
“We didn’t run like I was hoping but still these kilometers we have done gave some good understanding of the car, ending the rally with a bit of a better feeling than I started it definitely and yeah, that’s the only positive we can get out of the weekend.”
It will be incredibly intriguing to see how Esapekka Lappi fares on next week’s Rally Italy when he takes over the car from Ogier, and indeed how Oliver Solberg’s performance stacks up when he returns to drive the third Hyundai on Safari Rally Kenya.