OP-Ed – The future is in Ogier’s hands

By Alasdair Lindsay

The WRC Silly Season may not be as buzzing with action as the F1 equivalent – but arguably it has one mover that can change the entire shape of the sport for years to come, simply by choosing between two teams. It’s not just Sebastien Ogier who’ll be affected by his own decision between Citroen and Ford, the implications will change the careers of many around him as well.

From Ogier’s perspective, you’d expect the choice to be a simple one – stay at the marque which ‘raised’ him through his entire rally career (He’s only driven for Peugeot and Citroen for his whole career thus far) or switch to arch rivals Ford, where he could be a star in his own right, rather than racing with the shadow of six time world champion Sebastien Loeb.

Loeb could be a stumbling block for the younger Sebastien if he stays put at Citroen – he has been the undisputed number one driver since Carlos Sainz departed the team at the end of 2004. Ogier however has been the first team-mate of his since then to have really pushed him to the limit, so team orders aside he may not have any problems with a head-to-head fight with one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.

With that in mind, Loeb’s latest comments on the matter leave us with food for thought; is he genuinely concerned about the future of the sport, or just wants Ogier out of the team to make his life easier?

“I understand that he might be keen to stay at Citroen, it’s thanks to Citroen he is where he is, but on the other hand if both he and I dominate the championship Ford could pull out – and that means Citroen might go as well, and then Ogier has lost everything,” explained Loeb to L’Equipe.

“So his decision could be important for the future. Malcolm [Wilson, Ford Team Principal] has done all he can to get him. He has given him a good offer and over there he would certainly be number one.”

While Loeb may just want Ogier out of ‘his’ team, he also has a valid point. Could dumping Ford in favour of his current team jeopardise the Blue Oval’s future in rallying?

They’ve already had a tough season this year- Rally Bulgaria’s 1-2-3-4 result for Citroen compounded their misery in what has already been a mediocre season for both drivers, Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala. They may have a win each so far this year – but they’ve barely been able to keep the winless Petter Solberg at bay, who is currently 5th in the championship behind the Ford duo. A win for the Norwegian would see the Ford drivers slip to 4th and 5th in the championship – considering there are only two ‘works’ Citroens – one of which is behind them in the championship, you can see why they are so despondent right now.

Loeb may be over-reacting somewhat – Ford has a huge rallying program, expanding far beyond just the top level WRC series – as well as a large customer base for it’s current S2000 Fiesta, it also has its own Fiesta Cup, as well as a driver scheme in association with Abu Dhabi Tourist Board (one of the team’s major sponsors). It seems unlikely they would start throwing their toys out of the pram after two mediocre seasons and abandon years of hard work.

At Ford, Ogier would be equal first driver alongside the existing pair of Finns, Hirvonen and Latvala. The latter seemed mostly untroubled by the potential megastar joining the team.

“First of all, I’m not worried because I have a contract with Ford,” Latvala said. “I feel comfortable. He’s a great driver and he has been developing so quickly. If he would be in our team, he could be a strength in a way – but it is more competition. In some ways it’s good and in some ways not so good.

However Hirvonen did not sound pleased whatsoever by the news, giving a short and somewhat ominous opinion on the arrival of his potential team-mate.

“I don’t care,” he said.

I’m not buying that Mikko.

The current Ford number one has been having a miserable season – the only reason he is ahead of number two driver Latvala is because of the latter’s retirement in Portugal. The fact he is barely beating his own team-mate, whom he is supposed to be beating, shows that another driver, especially one of Ogier’s talent – would only compound his misery, possibly causing his seat with Ford to disappear at the end of next year.

On the other hand, staying at Citroen would have major repercussions for his current team-mates. The problems for Dani Sordo have already begun – Ogier is replacing him at Citroen Total for the remaining 3 gravel events. If he stayed and Citroen became a 3 car team, the Spaniard would essentially become the new Philippe Bugalsk – Citroen’s tarmac expert that only gets called up to score points when the rally circus heads for asphalt. His future as a works driver is on the line.

If Loeb is right, Ogier’s decision has the potential to destroy the sport, or reinvigorate it. Unlike your typical silly season, this one is more than just about choosing a team to drive for. Not only could his decision impact the people around him, it could decide the fate of the entire sport. Ogier is no longer merely a driver choosing a car – he has the responsibility of an entire sport bearing down on his shoulders. The question is, will he make the right choice?

Come back for the answer in two years time.

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