Sébastien Ogier: The flying Frenchman

EDGAR chats with the three-times World Champion to find out why the French are so good at rallying.

Steve Chalmers March 3, 2016

After winning last year’s World Rally Championship with relative ease, EDGAR spoke to Sébastien Ogier as he begins the defence of his title to find out how he keeps himself motivated and why are the French so good at rallying. 

Sitting with the 2015 World Rally Champion, Sébastien Ogier, a couple of hours before the start of the Rally De Catalyunia in Spain, we had one question to ask the Frenchman, a question that had been bugging us for quite some time. 

Being an old-school rally fan, we grew up with the likes of Hannu Mikkola, Markku Alén and Ari Vatanen – a trio of driving legends, collectively known as ‘The Flying Finns’. From an early age, these guys learned to drive on snow, slush and ice, going as far as inventing quicker and more exciting ways to take corners - look up the ‘Scandinavian Flick’ on You Tube.

So, the one thing we wanted to ask Sébastien was: “Why are the French so good at rallying, when they learn to drive in, well… France?” 

“For me there are a number of parameters,” explains the world champ for the past three years. “The FFSA (Federation Francaise De Sport Automobile) has a lot to do with it. I got into rallying late at the age of 22 and the Federation made the sport accessible, affordable and enjoyable. All I needed was a driver’s license and a Euro 20 entry fee for my first competitions. Winning these simple autocross events paid for my first few races and then things went quickly from there. The FFSA supported me a lot back then and with its help, I managed to convince more and more people to believe in me.” 

Sébastien Loeb, Ogier’s fellow Frenchman and the most successful driver in WRC history (he won the world championship a record nine times in a row from 2004 to 2012) was another product of the FFSA, proving its worth beyond a shadow of a doubt. However, after a lengthy chat, we found out that there were other factors on as to why the French have been the dominant force in rallying for the last decade.

Unlike the Flying Finns (and every other rallying nation on earth) who drive on varied and often loose surfaces, such as snow and gravel, the French compete almost exclusively on Tarmac stages. So, while everyone else learns to drive sideways, the French learn how to drive straight and fast and that’s where the rally cars themselves come into play.

The current WRC motors, such as Ogier’s Volkswagen Polo R, are so technologically advanced that it makes little difference to the car’s handling whether they’re on ice, or hot tarmac. So while going sideways is great fun, it is also considerably slower over a rally stage. 

Sitting in the WRC Driver’s Area, located just off the picturesque Avenida María Cristina in the heart of Barcelona, Ogier is relaxed and enjoying his moment. He’s cheerful and jokey, but his serious edge becomes obvious when asked about the ease with which he won the 2015 championship. 

“I’m happy when people say I made it look easy winning the WRC,” he says. “And from the global picture of the Championship, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that it was straightforward to win, as we won it earlier in the season. However, on every rally, the fight was pretty intense and we had to fight, often until the last stage.  I had to drive very hard to win those rallies. I think this has been my best season ever. I produced my best performances, even when we were taking more risks. We managed to stay on the road and not make many major mistakes: it wont be easy to repeat the performance in 2016.”

It wasn’t an entirely straightforward season for the Frenchman though. Despite always putting pressure on himself to perform and fight for the win, Ogier had a disastrous Corsica Rally, suffering from a puncture during a tough stage (Corsica was disrupted by torrential rain, floods and landslides) and then a gearbox problem, which led to his retirement.

Bouncing back and keeping motivation at a high level is a sign of a true champion, and like so many other rally drivers, Ogier has an open and easygoing attitude to life. For a man who hurtles down single-track roads at 200kmh, he’s about as relaxed as you can get. With a hat-trick of world titles under his belt, how does he prepare to do it all over again? 

“I think the main challenge that every champion faces in any sport around the word is keeping motivated and committed. Once you have won your respective championships a few times, it’s too easy to start to relax. You always have to keep your feet on the ground and remember how hard you fought to reach where you are and that it won’t happen again if you don’t work hard. I still prepare my rallies with the same approach I did the first time.” 

Chatting to Sébastien, it is clear that his feet are still firmly planted on the floor. Being World Champion hasn’t changed who he is and neither has his status changed his everyday life. “I have a completely normal private life at home,” he grins. “Sure, rallying is a great sport, a fantastic sport, but we don’t get the exposure of Formula One drivers. This means we can enjoy the world outside the car.” 

Mentioning Formula One brought up the age-old question of ‘who’s best?’ and one which Sébastien answers respectfully, despite most motorsport aficionados claiming rally drivers have more all-round skills. “Haha!” he laughs. “We often hear this and it’s nice to think we are thought of as the more complete driver.

“Rallying is very different to Formula One. We are in a more dangerous environment, we are facing a lot of difficult conditions and we need the ability to adapt to new situations. Rally drivers work with feeling a lot more. The F1 drivers know the tracks by heart. They all know how their cars work in any condition and they have to be perfectly accurate in how they drive. It’s just a different sport. I have a lot of respect for what they do, and they also respect us.” 

Sébastien naturally also has respect for his fellow rally drivers. However, does he have plans to break the incredible records of his fellow Frenchman, Sébastien Loeb? “I think everything is possible, but I do not believe it is my target at the moment, to be honest,” he responds. “I’m already three-times World Champion, which I’m really proud and happy with. Of course, I would like more and this year I will fight for my fourth world title. I believe in taking things one step at a time. We’ll see if one day I’ll come close to Loeb’s nine championships, but at the moment, it’s not a target.”

Finally, I ask Ogier what his moment of the season was and unsurprisingly, it was a moment shared with his Volkswagen team. “Victory in Germany! It was an intense moment: I wanted to do it for the VW team, so that was a great win.” 

With the 2016 season now underway and with two wins from the first two races for Ogier – Rallye Monte-Carlo and Rally Sweden – he and his co-driver Julien Ingrassia are expected to lead the pack once again.

One thing’s for sure, despite his relaxed view on rallying and life as a whole, Sébastien is out for the win. The new era of the ‘Flying Frenchman’ is here to stay. 

The World Rally Championship continues on March 3 in Mexico and concludes in Australia in November.