Fifteen years and just two champions. There is just cause for arguing the two Sébastiens – Loeb and Ogier – have somewhat throttled the life out of the World Rally Championship, such has been their dominance.
But that assertion takes nothing away from the brilliance of both men. Like Michael Schumacher in Formula 1, Loeb and Ogier have simply shown an ability and an application on levels far beyond their rivals. You have to admire them.
The trouble is, as F1 found in Schumacher’s Ferrari era, dominance by one driver or car maker over a sustained period is rarely great news in motor sport. Loeb scored a mind-boggling nine – yes, nine – consecutive WRC titles for Citroën, starting in 2004. Then when his era drew to a close, Ogier picked up the baton and has remained unbeaten for the past six years.
But this season, which kicks off this week with the prestigious Monte-Carlo Rally, there is a very real possibility that his reign will finally come to an end. For the first time since 2003, when Petter Solberg became champion for Subaru, the title might not be won by a man called Sébastien. And when you consider the state of play ahead of the Monte, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest this might well be the most competitive – and unmissable – WRC season for years. Here’s why.
Of course, you can never discount the great man. But with the opposition circling, he is going to need a lot to go his way to extend his run to a seventh WRC crown.
Ogier’s first four titles came in Volkswagen’s dominant factory-run Polo. Following VW’s withdrawal, he switched to M-Sport’s Fiestas and won a hard-fought pair of titles despite the Cumbrian team losing its official Ford works status.
Ogier has loved driving for Malcolm Wilson, but Ford’s refusal to put its full weight behind the team has pushed Ogier to return to the factory where it all began for him in the WRC: Citroën. The problem is the team has slipped from its once-dominant position. The C3 WRC is still a rally winner, but others have found it a difficult car to tame. Ogier has work to do to develop the car into a tool with which he can string consistency together, without having to push over the ragged edge.
Only four-time champion Juha Kankkunen has won WRC titles for three different manufacturers: Peugeot (1986), Lancia (’87 and ’91) and Toyota (’93). To match that record is absolutely within Ogier’s range – but given Citroën’s current level and the opposition both team and driver are facing, it will require a monumental effort to remain unbeaten.
2. Ogier's rivals are circling
There are three main contenders for Ogier’s crown. Can one of them break the WRC’s Sébastien habit?
Thierry Neuville certainly got close in 2018. The Belgian spent more time leading the points than the eventual champion in his Hyundai i20 coupe, but a loss of momentum and mistakes in the second half of the season cost him crucial ground. He will be fired up to deliver on his obvious potential this year.
Ott Tänak was arguably the story of 2018 as the Estonian enjoyed a breakthrough year for Toyota that included four rally wins – including a summer hat-trick in Finland, Germany and Turkey – and a late bid for the title. Toyota’s Yaris claimed the manufacturer’s crown, so he has the machinery. In his sophomore year for the marque, Tänak is our bet to end that Sébastien habit.
Then there is Tänak’s team-mate, Jari-Matti Latvala, an experienced campaigner with clear and undoubted speed – but with a reputation for crashing too often. Winner of the 2018 finale in Australia, the Finn will be keyed up to carry that form to Monte-Carlo and beyond.
Northern Irishman Kris Meeke must have thought his top-line career was over when Citroën sacked him for one crash too many following Rally Portugal last year. Then Toyota’s team boss, four-time champion Tommi Mäkinen, came calling.
Does 39-year-old Meeke deserve what is surely his final WRC chance? Yes. A five-time rally winner, he remains one of the fastest and certainly one of the most exciting drivers of the modern era. Echoes of his late, great mentor Colin McRae – who also struggled at times to harness his ability and keep it out of the trees – are obvious.
But this really is it for Meeke. McRae kept it together long enough to win a single WRC crown in 1995. Can his spiritual successor finally take a leaf? It’s hard to adapt the way you drive, especially towards the tail end of a career. But a change of co-driver, ending a long partnership with friend Paul Nagle, shows Meeke is at least making an effort to kerb his excesses.
Watching how he copes with this all-new – and golden – opportunity will be fascinating.
4. The old master is back…
Yes, and then there is Loeb. Wasn’t he supposed to have retired by now? The truth is for all his other campaigns in other branches of motor sport, the WRC remains the great Frenchman’s first love – and at 44, he cannot leave it alone.
A brilliant victory on Rally Spain last year, his 79th in the WRC, proved conclusively what we already knew: Loeb has still got it.
This week he returns from his latest Dakar Rally exploits with Peugeot to tackle the Monte once more – but shock: not for Citroën. With old nemesis Ogier now in place (they aren’t exactly mates), Loeb has joined Hyundai for a six-rally campaign.
That limitation means a 10th title is out of the question, but that’s not Loeb’s motivation now. He clearly rallies because he loves it, and six is enough for him to get his fix whilst also helping Hyundai’s bid for a first manufacturers’ crown – and potentially be a spoiler to Ogier’s hopes of matching and surpassing his monumental WRC record.
That alone offers a recipe for a classic WRC season, but the ingredients are so much richer. Catch it on BT Sport and via wrc.com. We’ve got a feeling it’s going to be epic.