The epic Loeb battle that ignited Ogier’s WRC career

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The epic Loeb battle that ignited Ogier’s WRC career
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“I have a new rival now.”

Those were the words uttered by then six-time world champion Sebastien Loeb in 2010 after losing a hard-fought Rally Portugal duel to Sebastien Ogier – as the young pretender to the World Rally Championship throne claimed a breakthrough maiden victory. It was a premonition as accurate as Loeb’s precision behind the wheel that would help the Frenchman record a career nine world titles and 80 rally wins to date.

Portugal 2010 marked the emergence of a new world order and challenger for Loeb. It was the precursor for several intense and sometimes controversial duels, until Loeb decided to bow out as a full-time WRC driver following his ninth title-winning campaign in 2012.

Twelve years and a few battle scars later, Loeb and Ogier remain perhaps the two most revered names in the WRC. Ogier picked up the WRC baton previously held by Loeb at the end of 2012 to ensure the Sebastien dominance continued, winning eight of the next nine world titles with Volkswagen, M-sport Ford and Toyota.

But in a strange twist of fate, this rivalry has been rekindled now that Ogier has joined Loeb as a semi-retired WRC driver. The pair, not quite ready to walk into the sunset just yet, have both embarked on partial-season programmes in 2022. After bowing out as a WRC full-timer with his eighth world title in 2021, Ogier has remained part of the Toyota set-up in the squad’s third GR Yaris, while Loeb has teamed up with M-sport for one-off events in its Ford Puma.

The duo created headlines in January after becoming embroiled in one of the WRC’s all-time classic scraps. It was only decided in Loeb’s favour in a final stage showdown, when a puncture for Ogier on the penultimate stage of the time-honoured asphalt season opener forced him to relinquish his lead.

With the pair now set to line up again in their first WRC outings since Monte Carlo this weekend, for a potential Great Gravel GOAT Off in Portugal as the WRC celebrates its 50th season, it is pertinent to remember that it was 12 years ago on the Iberian gravel where Ogier’s WRC legend began. It sparked an affinity with the rally that has so far yielded five wins in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2017, an event record Ogier shares with Markku Alen.

Ogier took his first WRC win in Portugal in 2src1src after a brilliant fight with Loeb

Ogier took his first WRC win in Portugal in 2010 after a brilliant fight with Loeb

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

No matter what the discipline, every driver remembers their first win. And Ogier is no different, especially as the milestone victory arrived following a straight fight with the most successful driver that the WRC had ever seen.

“It was a huge moment for me personally and for my career,” Ogier tells Motorsport.com in the lead up to Portugal. “This kind of step is crucial to go forward and for your confidence. I still remember well this win, and especially after it happened after one of the big fights we had with Loeb.”

It was a win that had been coming. Ogier had quickly cultivated a reputation as ‘rallying’s next big thing’ and earned a first shot at the WRC big time in 2009 with the Citroen Junior Team after winning the Junior WRC title at his first attempt in 2008. That year he’d been driving a Citroen C2 backed by the French motorsport governing body, the FFSA, and scored impressive wins on the gravel stages of Mexico and Jordan in addition to Loeb-speciality Germany.

“We have agreed they can drive, but if one of them go off the road I will be really upset. And when I am upset, it is not good” Olivier Quesnel

During his first year behind the wheel of the C4 WRC, Ogier was making name for himself despite an inconsistent start to life in rallying’s top tier. The rollercoaster run was however punctuated by a breakthrough maiden podium, as Ogier finished second to Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen at the notorious Acropolis Rally in Greece. There, he outclassed factory Citroen stablemates Loeb and Dani Sordo, who retired and finished 11th respectively.

A consistent run of three top sixes from the final five rallies of 2009 set up Ogier to come out of the blocks even faster for his second season with the Citroen Junior Team in 2010. By the fourth round in New Zealand, Ogier seemed destined to chalk up a maiden win only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when a spin on the final stage handed his future Toyota team boss Jari-Matti Latvala the spoils by 2.4s. That was Ogier firing a warning shot to his rivals and indeed to Loeb, who finished third. When the WRC reconvened in Portugal, Ogier knew he’d proven he could win in the WRC.

“A few weeks before I lost my first win by two seconds in New Zealand and I knew I was really started to be there [challenging at the front],” recounts Ogier. “But being capable and actually doing are different things.”

With Loeb leading the championship, it meant he would face the disadvantage of opening the dry and dusty gravel roads. While this unique art of damage limitation has proven to be one of Ogier’s strengths, back then a favourable road position was music to his ears. Ogier knew he had to make this advantage count and subsequently drove flat out – racing into 26.6s lead over Sordo, who had lost time to an overshoot at a junction. Loeb ended his day of road-sweeping 44.8s adrift.

Ogier had lost the chance of victory in New Zealand to a final stage spin that meant he finished 2.4 seconds behind Latvala's Ford

Ogier had lost the chance of victory in New Zealand to a final stage spin that meant he finished 2.4 seconds behind Latvala’s Ford

Photo by: Sutton Images

However, the tables would be turned come Saturday. As dictated by the championship rules, Ogier would now have to open the roads by virtue of leading the rally at end of the first leg. It was time for Loeb to strike back and he did so, taking 22s out of Ogier on the morning loop to move into second overall.

Ogier stemmed the loss of time to the charging Loeb in the afternoon, but the blue touch paper had been lit. A tense battle for the victory was unfolding. Once the crews returned to the service park, Ogier’s lead had been reduced to 21.1s, with five Sunday stages remaining.

The battle between the junior and the WRC master was not lost on then-Citroen boss Olivier Quesnel, who laid down the law in no uncertain terms at the day-ending press conference.

“My objective is to get both championships so tomorrow they [Ogier and Loeb] will be able to drive,” said Quesnel. “But it will forbidden to go off the road – I don’t want to see what happened in New Zealand.

“We have agreed they can drive, but if one of them goes off the road I will be really upset. And when I am upset, it is not good.”

While a reminder of what happened in New Zealand was probably the last thing Ogier wanted, Quesnel’s wishes were ultimately granted – albeit only after his drivers had engaged in a relentless scrap. An under-pressure Ogier, once again opening the road, witnessed Loeb continue to eat into his lead. But the young pretender offered a glimpse of the road-opening skills that would prove so valuable in the years to come and somehow managed to hold the lead.

The pair would line up against each other in front of a packed crowd gathered at the Estadio Algarve, built for UEFA’s Euro 2004 football tournament, for one last blast around the specially-constructed tarmac super special stage. Despite a reminder of how it could still unravel when Petter Solberg crashed his privately-run Citroen C4 on the tight test, Ogier not only drove cleanly but edged Loeb by 0.2s to win the rally by 7.9s having soaked up two days of relentless pressure from the WRC’s benchmark.

After sweeping the road on the opening day of the rally, Loeb charged back but couldn't usurp Ogier

After sweeping the road on the opening day of the rally, Loeb charged back but couldn’t usurp Ogier

Photo by: Sutton Images

“It’s a fantastic feeling and I am very, very happy,” said Ogier at the time. “It has not been easy with Sebastien behind me, pushing me all the time, but we also pushed hard for all of the rally and made no mistakes.”

The defeat confirmed to Loeb there was a new pretender to his throne and an admission there was a new force in the championship.

“I tried all the rally to beat him, but he was just too fast,” said Loeb. “On the second pass through the stages he was untouchable. I have a new rival now.”

“In 2011 that was really the only season where we fought for a championship together. Even then I was still missing a bit of experience to be as strong as I was later on in my career” Sebastien Ogier

Reflecting on the milestone today, Ogier says this was the moment when he realised that challenging for a WRC title was a realistic goal.

“He had to open the road on day one and I could take the advantage and was able to take the lead,” he says. “Then the two next days I had to go flat out being first on the road and of course he was catching me and catching me.

“At the end, I managed to stay ahead by less than 10 seconds, so it was an intense win and one of those moments I will never forget. It was important to finally write in the history book with a first win and then we could target the next target. It was an important step and from this moment we were targeting the world championship.”

Another rally win arrived in Japan as Ogier finished 2010 fourth overall, while Loeb took a seventh world title. But the Ogier vs Loeb rivalry would only last one more full season in 2011, when Ogier was elevated to the factory team alongside Loeb.

Loeb congratulates Ogier after his Portugal 2src1src win, the first of 54 to date for the younger Frenchman

Loeb congratulates Ogier after his Portugal 2010 win, the first of 54 to date for the younger Frenchman

Photo by: Sutton Images

That season that produced intense battles and flashpoints as the pair fought for supremacy, the most notable of those coming in Germany where a furious Ogier defied Citroen team orders to hold station behind Loeb and secure a 1-2 finish. He instead kept pushing, closing in on his rival before Loeb picked up a puncture. Citroen achieved its 1-2 but not in the order it wanted, causing divide in the camp. It did however produce an iconic line from Ogier at the stage finish: “Of course I can’t celebrate it when my teammate has a problem, but at least today I have seen there is justice in the sport.”

Ogier left Citroen at season’s end and spent 2012 in an S2000 Skoda Fabia run by Volkswagen Motorsport while developing the new Polo WRC. That meant he never had a hope of challenging for wins, though he did score points in seven rallies and finished a remarkable fifth in Sardinia.

Since 2011, there have been fleeting moments where rallying’s most successful have locked horns at the peak of their powers, with January’s Monte Carlo epic duel perhaps the best of the bunch. This weekend offers up the potential for a second portion of that in Portugal, although Ogier has already downplayed the possibility of a Monte Carlo repeat.

“I think it has definitely been a special time to have two drivers like this dominating the series one after each other,” Ogier adds. “I often say this rivalry was almost made bigger by the media than it really is, because we didn’t compete against each other for that long.

“In 2011 that was really the only season where we fought for a championship together. Even then I was still missing a bit of experience to be as strong as I was later on in my career.

“Of course I’m happy I always enjoy battling with him. We had a couple of nice fights during our career and it is nice to see that the fans are excited about it [this weekend].

“At the end of the day, as Seb has said, we are very similar and had similar careers in terms of achievement. It is always nice for the journalists and the fans to argue who was the best and this discussion will go on for a long time.”

Whatever happens in Portugal this weekend, Ogier will always have the memories of that 2010 duel in the Algarve sun and that first triumph over his compatriot, which crucially gave him the belief he could follow in Loeb’s footsteps.

Ogier's first win was a decisive one for his confidence and encouraged him that he could win titles in future

Ogier’s first win was a decisive one for his confidence and encouraged him that he could win titles in future

Photo by: Sutton Images

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