Volkswagen's departure not only leaves WRC without its dominant team, but also its reigning champion Sebastien Ogier without a seat. Motorsport.com takes a look at what could be in store for the Frenchman next year.
Although Ogier didn’t leave Citroen on the friendliest of terms in 2011, the biggest reason of his departure was probably what he saw in the Volkswagen project rather than any serious tension between him and the French team.
Still at the beginning of his career, Ogier was willing to spend an entire season away from the competitive field to develop the Polo. However, as a four-time champion at 32, one could think he does not want to go to a small or newcomer team, especially looking at how increasingly frustrated he got throughout the gravel rallies he was unable to win.
Among all the WRC teams, Citroen is the safest option for Ogier – it’s a proven team, having been the dominant force before Volkswagen, and with all the aero knowledge the French marque acquired from its WTCC tenure, they could easily end up with the best new-generation WRC car.
Even this year, it looked as if Meeke could have become runner-up if not for only a running part-time campaign in the old DS3. Speaking of Meeke, pairing Ogier with the Briton could result in some interesting intra-team battles and a title fight we haven’t seen in WRC in a long time.
From the team’s point of view, it’s hard to imagine Citroen doesn't want Ogier. Team boss Yves Matton tried to sign Thierry Neuville because he wanted two top drivers, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the recently freed up drivers end up at Citroen, even if it’s not Ogier.
Based on this year’s results alone, Ogier moving to M-Sport for an assault on the 2017 championship would appear to be something of a punt – at best. But there’s good reason to think that the four-time champion Frenchman and Malcolm Wilson’s Cumbria-based outfit could form a very potent combination when next year’s regulations take effect.
Were to Ogier pull off a fifth straight title – and you’d find few willing to bet against it, wherever he ends up – it would qualify as a much greater achievement with a non-works team (albeit one with tacit Ford backing) than going back to Citroen, where he competed from 2009 to 2011, prior to falling out with the French marque while teammate to the other famous rally champion named Sebastien.
After all, Ogier has nothing left to prove in the sport. He could walk away from WRC tomorrow and still be remembered as one of the all-time greats. Winning with a privateer squad would do much more to cement his legacy than a return to Citroen – or indeed joining either of the other two manufacturer teams in 2017, Hyundai (which has no room at the inn anyway) and Toyota.
Joining the then-unproven Volkswagen team, after spending a season in a Super 2000 Skoda, was a risky move that paid dividends for Ogier after he parted ways with Citroen. If he has the nerve, the 32-year-old has the potential to start a similar new era in WRC with M-Sport.
It is difficult to see WRC's decision to ditch its current running order system, seen by many as a specifically anti-Ogier rule, as anything but a plea for the four-time champion to forget all about any hiatus or, worse yet, any retirement.
But if the Frenchman had been genuinely considering a break from the WRC due to the soon-to-be-abolished rule, there's no reason to write that option off immediately after the rule change.
For anyone but Ogier, it is nigh impossible to tell whether he would have any non-motorsport reasons to take a year off – and it would be out of order to publicly guess or pontificate on that side.
In purely sporting terms, however, a hiatus would make sense. The new regulations introduce a high degree of uncertainty – and while, with the VW benchmark calling it quits, there could be a closer fight, it's also entirely plausible there will be a different runaway team. And, going by 2016 form, it's easy to imagine that team being Hyundai – the one team where Ogier is definitely not getting a seat in.
If Ogier picks a team that ends up anywhere near the front, he'll be racking up rally wins without question – but a team change and a regulation change mean that former stipulation is no guarantee. There's probably a genuine risk of being stuck outside of the top three.
Instead, what Ogier could do is wait and see. The 2017 season will clear up the running order – and by the end of the year, he surely will have a guaranteed competitive choice somewhere to continue breaking records and shaping his legacy.