The Sébastien Loeb you see now – weather-beaten and suntanned after his adventures in the Saudi desert on the latest Dakar – is a very different animal to the fresh-faced youngster who burst onto the world rally scene more than 20 years ago, nearly winning his first rally with a factory World Rally Car.
These days, he looks more like a seasoned explorer than an aspiring member of a boy band. It’s easy to understand why: now aged 47, he’s won everything there is to win – nine World Rally titles and 79 WRC victories, for the record – and travelled the world in pursuit of his art. Through mud, mountains, snow, ice, asphalt and desert: in temperatures that have ranged from lower than –20deg C on Rally Sweden to more than 40deg C in the heat of the Arabian desert.
He’s lived, laughed, loved, given it everything. So now, as he puts it himself: “I’m driving mainly for pleasure.” Mainly, because he’s still serious about winning, especially when it comes to Dakar, which so far has slipped through his fingers in the same way that Le Mans did, with a best result of second.
This year’s desert odyssey also marked his second consecutive retirement – but there are reasons to be cheerful, despite starting from the ground up with the brand new Prodrive BRX Hunter project. It was built specifically for the FIA’s new cross-country regulations, but before even seeing a sand dune in anger, it was clear that this year’s Dakar would be an uphill struggle.
“We started testing only three weeks before the start – Covid didn’t help – so everything was brand new,” points out Loeb. “This year’s route also didn’t play to my strengths or the strengths of the car, although in the end it was just a suspension triangle that broke. That’s okay: I’m sure it will be analysed and fixed and won’t break again next year. The concept of the car is good. It’s really enjoyable to drive and rolls a lot less than the Peugeot I had before. It feels more pointy, more like a World Rally Car. There’s a lot of potential.”
Even so, he endured a torrid rally. He rowed with officials after being slapped with a five-minute penalty for speeding; his support truck broke down; and new navigation notes left him and experienced co-driver Daniel Elena baffled.
The coup de grâce came in suitably farcical circumstances. “In a double jump on a landing, we broke a [suspension] wishbone and then we lost 10 hours in the desert.”
Unable to continue as night fell, Loeb and Elena waited patiently for the recovery truck carrying the spare parts needed to continue the race. Just as they thought their saviour had arrived, things suddenly got even worse. The truck had brought the incorrect component due to some lax labelling. It was a case of right label – wrong part.
“Surprise!” says Loeb. “So at this point, we lost completely the race.”
Loeb and his co-driver were forced to amuse themselves and take refuge with a following camera crew. But today, the Frenchman is relaxed: his time on the Dakar will come. For the first time in decades, Loeb doesn’t have a factory contract – having terminated his WRC agreement with Hyundai last year – and he’s totally free to make his own decisions.
Take a peek inside his garage and you’ll find a Porsche 911 Turbo S, an Audi RS6 and a McLaren 675LT: all cars he’s chosen because he likes them.
He no longer has to drive a Citroën, Peugeot, Hyundai or promote a particular brand of oil for PR purposes. He can just be himself.
And that’s something that Seb does incredibly well, a task made easier by the passing of the years and accumulation of unprecedented success. There’s nothing more to prove or say; absolutely no need to toe any clean-living, politically correct lines.
“For the future, I think I’m done with the World Rally Championship”
All this, plus Covid putting the world on hold, has brought Loeb to a crossroads in his life and career: he’s recently moved house as well. There’s a genuine sense now of a new chapter about to open.
Like all of us, he’s had plenty of time to think about what to do next, sitting at home in Switzerland as travel restrictions kicked in. After so many years of moving around, he found the experience odd but beneficial: the chance to spend more time with his daughter Valentine was amazing and he was also able to get stuck into his new house project.
There was clearly some degree of boredom too, as the Instagram video he shared, showing his impressively dextrous negotiation of an indoor mountain bike obstacle course, demonstrated. Who hasn’t dreamed of doing that one day?
“For me the lockdown was okay,” he points out. “I didn’t mind it too much, although I definitely missed the competition. But I feel really sorry for the younger drivers who have just started their motor sport careers or are in the middle of them. For them it must be so frustrating not being able to progress their careers and show what they can do.”
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Although he may not have a manufacturer contract now – through his choice – Loeb has something that for him is probably much better: an association with Prodrive, which not only links him to the Dakar Rally but also the new off-road series Extreme E.
For rally fans, Prodrive, which ran the iconic blue WRC Subaru Imprezas, is the equivalent of Ferrari in Formula 1. And even the pragmatic Loeb admits that it feels quite special to follow in the footsteps of legends like Colin McRae.
Loeb will be driving in the all-electric off-road championship for Lewis Hamilton’s X44 team this year, with Hamilton’s cars run by Prodrive. “I’d actually had a few discussions already about Extreme E last year as it seemed interesting,” reveals Loeb.
“I mentioned it to [Prodrive boss] David Richards, who said he would put me in touch with Lewis about his team. I’ve met Lewis a few times at prize-givings and so on, but I don’t know him well. So we had a video call and it all went from there. I’ll be seeing Lewis at the Bahrain Grand Prix, before the first Extreme E round in Saudi Arabia in April.”
Loeb’s Dakar experience should stand him in good stead for the opening round of the new series, as well as his previous rallycross campaigns, but he’s still not too sure of what exactly to expect.
“I know that I’ll be in good company, as the drivers competing in Extreme E are at a really high level – not to mention the people who own the teams, like Lewis and Nico Rosberg,” he says. “I don’t really think it will be like rallycross, as the cars don’t seem designed for contact, but it should be good fun. It’s only five rounds, so why not?”
Apart from Extreme E, testing the BRX car and keeping his eye on the Sébastien Loeb Racing team – which competes in a variety of championships including the French Porsche Carrera Cup, European Touring Cars and Andros Trophy – Loeb doesn’t have many other plans for 2021.
But that’s the way he likes it now. Right from the start, the Frenchman has always been somebody who lives his life either at full speed or asleep. There’s rarely much in between, which is part of his all-or-nothing personality.
And what Loeb really enjoys doing these days is messing about with friends, having the occasional party, playing with cars or bikes, and just making the most of his downtime. The young Sébastien was intensely serious and focused. This latest evolution of Loeb is far more relaxed and happy to enjoy the fruits of his labours.
“Especially now, it’s impossible to plan too much, as we’ve already seen last year,” he adds. “So let’s see what happens. I’d like to do one or two rallies in France for fun, like I’ve always done, but apart from that I’m not in a hurry. For the future, who knows? I think I’m done with the World Rally Championship, but never say never.”
Rallying will always be his first love, though. Ask about the defining moment of his career and he will talk movingly about winning the 2010 world championship in a Citroën C4 at the Rally de France, close to his home town Haguenau on the German border. Taking his seventh title on the streets he knew so well, surrounded by his friends at the usual old haunts: it was almost too much. That was the only time he cried in public.
But you could add so many other highlights. He’s almost forgotten the time when he won the 2005 Tour de Corse driving a Citroën Xsara WRC by taking every stage, for instance.
His favourite motor sport memory is something else entirely, though: Pikes Peak in 2013, when he shattered the record on the epic race to the clouds, going faster in his outlandish 875bhp 208 T16 – an average 87mph – than even Peugeot’s computer predicted was possible. Already, that conquest is part of modern history; the monstrous 208 Pikes Peak an ageing relic from the past.
“That achievement was a real one-off, something very special,” Loeb says. “It was probably a bit over the limit. So if I had to choose only one thing to remember? Maybe Pikes Peak.”
Moving on though, how do you even begin to recreate all those moments of such intensity? Feeling overwhelmed by how far you’ve come on the streets of your home, carving your name into history with an unprecedented sweep of stage wins, dancing on a precipice between life and death as you power your way up into the sky?
Such a vertiginous rollercoaster of never-ending success can leave you punch-drunk; emotionally as well as professionally disorientated. Your body is constantly battered by the ruts and jumps and travel, your mind incessantly assaulted by spikes of adrenaline and supreme concentration. And that has been non-stop, for the last 20 years or more. That’s what it’s like to be Sébastien Loeb.
But he’s still coming back for more – on his terms, however. And although Loeb says it’s just for fun now, there’s plenty of winning left to do. While the driving schedule may have slowed down, the urge to compete has never gone away. Life begins again. Even for a nine-time champion.
Sébastien Loeb career stats
- 180 rallies
- 2002 first WRC win
- 9 WRC titles (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012)
- Daniel Elena co-driver since 1999
- 7 disciplines participated in (WRC, Le Mans, rallycross, GT, WTCC, Porsche Supercup, Dakar)
- 925 rally stage wins