Top 20 Stories of 2017
Top Stories of 2017, #17: Ogier leads M-Sport to WRC glory
Next up in our countdown of the best stories in motorsport in 2017 is the WRC starting a new, exciting and competitive era - and how Sebastien Ogier led an underdog team to glory.
Before the 2017 WRC season, anticipation was at its highest level for a very long time in the championship, which had stagnated in the later years of the Citroen/Sebastien Loeb era and even more so amid the domination of Ogier and Volkswagen.
But, there were already reasons to look forward to despite that: New-generation cars, faster and more beautiful than the old ones, were being introduced. And a formidable and prestigious brand in Toyota was returning to rallying for the first time since 1999.
The thing that really ramped up anticipation for Monte Carlo, though, was the bombshell that Volkswagen, the dominant force for the previous four years, was leaving the WRC with immediate effect.
Not only did that blow the competition wide open, but it left three of the strongest drivers in the series without a seat at a time most deals for 2018 had already been struck.
Indeed, Andreas Mikkelsen wasn’t able to find a new home in time for this season, but Jari-Matti Latvala found refuge at Toyota and four-time champion Ogier, despite toying with retirement, finally signed for M-Sport.
Since splitting with Ford at the end of 2012, Malcolm Wilson’s outfit had not won a single rally, and in 2016 it was a long way behind Volkswagen and Hyundai.
When Ogier and M-Sport joined forces, it was a mouthwatering prospect for fans - would the Frenchman be able to elevate the underdog team to glory, or would it be a golden opportunity for somebody else to hog the limelight?
The season started in best possible fashion as Ogier grabbed an impressive win in the Monte Carlo season opener.
In a rally of high attrition, he was not the fastest (Thierry Neuville lost a safe win by hitting a rock) but used what helped him dominate the sport between 2013 and 2016 to full effect – his consistency.
After all, there were times when teammates Latvala and Mikkelsen could beat Ogier, but what they couldn't do is sustain such a high level of performance without making mistakes - and it was the same story in 2017.
Fears of Ogier steamrolling the field for another season were allayed when Jari-Matti Latvala took a shock win for Toyota. That meant for the first time since February 2014, it was not Ogier leading the championship.
Then, Mexico was Kris Meeke’s turf, after the Citroen driver survived a ridiculous visit to a car park right at the very end of the final stage, and then Hyundai's Neuville dominated in Corsica to make it four different manufacturers winning the first four rallies.
When Neuville won again in Argentina, momentum and the status of title favourite started to shift towards the Belgian. But Ogier, while not winning rallies, stealthily racked up the podiums, which kept him in charge of the standings.
In the middle part of the season, the gap fluctuated between the pair but never went above 20 points, and it wasn't until Rally Finland in late July when Neuville finally drew level with Ogier due to a rare crash by the Frenchman.
Yet, Neuville suffered suspension failures in the next two rounds, all but ending his title ambitions, and Ogier eventually grabbed his fifth crown with a rally to spare with third place in Rally GB.
By most metrics, 2017 was Ogier's least productive campaign of his five championship runs – he only won two rallies, while with Volkswagen he never won less than six.
But even when he couldn’t win, he was always in the top five (except in Finland), while in contrast, Neuville was outside the top 10 in four events, giving away as many as 100 points in the process. The title was ultimately decided by only 24.
With his fifth title triumph, Ogier has well and truly silenced his remaining few critics, and nobody can argue the Frenchman isn't now truly among the championship’s best-ever drivers.
And although the name inscribed on the championship trophy remains the same, it shouldn't take away from what was probably the WRC's most entertaining and varied season for a decade.
Whether that continues next year remains to be seen, especially with Ford increasing its support for M-Sport and Ogier, unlike this time last year, having time for proper pre-season preparations. His rivals have plenty of reasons to worry.
Click here to see the list of top 20 stories so far.
Ostberg contemplating step down to WRC2 in 2018
Loeb to contest three WRC events for Citroen in 2018
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