Rallying has always been the bad boy of motor sport: less glamorous than Formula 1, more brash than touring cars and dirtier than sports cars. The drivers, likewise, revel in their outsider status and perhaps that is why only Colin McRae had previously made it into the Hall of Fame. But now the flying Scotsman has been joined by a worthy companion and arguably the greatest driver the sport has ever seen: Sébastien Loeb.
The Frenchman emerged victorious in a three-way race against Richard Burns and Hannu Mikkola – both brilliant competitors – but no match for Loeb’s astonishing record. When he retired from rallying full time in 2012 he had won the world title an unprecedented and consecutive nine times. Put simply, from his first title win in 2004 nobody else got a look in for nigh on a decade.
It was fitting that the award was presented by one of the sport’s original legends, Paddy Hopkirk, 52 years after he scored his most famous success when he crossed the line first in his Mini Cooper at
the Monte Carlo Rally.
Loeb couldn’t be there for the evening itself – he was flying back to France after competing in the British round of the World Rallycross Championship, the discipline he switched to for the 2016 season – but he did send a heartfelt video message thanking the readers of Motor Sport for voting in their thousands for him: “I’m really proud to receive this award, it’s just incredible after all the big names that are on it. To have nine world titles is something I couldn’t have imagined when I was younger,” he said.
Off-camera he was equally effusive: “This is a great honour and I am very proud.”
Loeb is not one to dwell on past achievements. He is now fully focused on winning the WRX title – a feat, should he achieve it – that will make him the only driver to win 10 FIA world championship crowns. It also gives him the chance to reignite his rivalry with Petter Solberg, one of the few to challenge his dominance of WRC and who made the switch to WRX in 2014. “It is nice to see him again,” said Loeb. “It seems a long time since we were fighting together for the rally championship. Now we have the opportunity to fight together again.” Clearly you can take the man out of rallying, but you can’t take the rally out of the man. Joe Dunn