Our man thought his drive in the Citroën C4 WRC had gone far better than his chat with Sébastien Loeb, until the World Rally Champion came alive behind the wheel…
By Andrew Frankel
Of all the things I had been able to anticipate on my way to France to meet the Citroën C4 World Rally Car and its arch-exponent, Sébastien Loeb, it was the incongruity of the setting that surprised me most
We met on a gravel stage next to Paul Ricard, but while Mr Ecclestone’s High Tech Test Track (as this great Formula 1 circuit now calls itself) sports its own five-star hotel (known to all as the Bernie Inn), an airport and pit facilities filled with every imaginable comfort, Citroën Racing was happy to pitch a few small tents on a patch of land only the charitable would call a field. As we arrive the world’s greatest rally driver is relieving himself against a tree. It felt like going for an audience with the Queen, being walked through Buckingham Palace to a small shed in the garden and finding Her Majesty at the sink, Marigolds on, up to her elbows in dishes.
Loeb’s all-conquering C4 is there too, not polished down to the rivets for the benefit of our photographer’s lens, but bearing the scuffs, scratches, dents and, above all, dirt of a hard life on a special stage diet. The absence of ceremony is what makes it special. This isn’t some carefully choreographed, media-managed, arms-length introduction to the C4 WRC: it is me, the C4 and the stage. Plus, of course, Monsieur Loeb.
Sheer statistical supremacy does not necessarily make a Schumacher a better driver than a Nuvolari, Moss, Fangio or Senna; nor can you point to the fact that Loeb has won more rallies and titles than anyone else in the history of the sport as proof that he is categorically better than Mikkola, Toivonen, Kankunnen or Mäkinen. But I think it safe to say that with 53 WRC wins and counting (double that of Carlos Sainz who is the next most successful), in the modern era at least, no one is near him.
The same can be said for his car, though that the C4 is luckier to have Loeb than vice-versa is not a point many would argue. Even so, it sits at the summit of the sport, the ultimate development of a 21st-century rally car, in a period just before vital but drastic cost-cutting rule changes seem likely to one extent or another to emasculate rally cars for years to come.
But it is experiencing the combination of the two, the unstoppable Loeb/C4 alliance, that’s exciting me most. Even those lucky enough to have been driven by truly great racers have never been able to see them in their natural environment thanks to the impossibility of joining Fangio in a 250F or Senna in an MP4/4. By contrast, joining Loeb in a C4 is as simple as opening a door. Even the seat slides back.
But first I must drive the car myself. Until today Citroën has never let anyone outside the team, let alone a journalist, near the driving seat of the C4 WRC and as a result there is a lot of anxiety masquerading as advice hanging in the air. I’d rather have been driven first but I can see why Citroën might think that letting me follow in Loeb’s tyre tracks would not be the greatest of ideas. I even asked if Sébastien would care to join me for the ride but was politely told that insurance issues precluded it. Insurance issues and, I strongly suspect, the fact that Loeb would rather be run over by the C4 than witness firsthand my attempt to drive it.
Still, there are many competition machines more conceptually scary than a modern WRC car, a breed which looks likely never to return to its fire-breathing 1980s Group B days. Like all its rivals, the C4 is based on a standard road car. It looks like a Citroën C4 because it is one. Its turbocharged 2-litre engine sits at an angle of 25deg in the engine bay and produces 315bhp at 5500rpm, a lower state of tune than certain road cars I could name. The headline grabber is the torque: 420lb ft of it at 2750rpm, a preposterous amount for such a small engine.
This urge is directed through a six-speed sequential gearbox before being sent in four different directions by the medium of mechanical differentials at the front and rear and an electronically controlled item in the middle.
The suspension is interesting. At the front you’ll find a MacPherson strut similar in basic architecture (though utterly different in execution) to that of a C4 road car. But at the back, the road car’s torsion beam axle has been replaced by struts to allow the wheel travel, control and ground clearance required by rallying. Its great rival, the Ford Focus WRC, has an inherently superior multi-link rear axle, allowable only because that’s what the Focus
road car has too.
All in all, the C4 weighs in at the 1230kg minimum limit mandated by the regs, about the same weight as a regular C4 shopping car.
Happily it’s a very easy car to climb aboard and, unlike a racing car, there’s hardly anything you have to learn. Yes, there are 12 separate controls on the steering wheel alone, covering everything from mapping for the engine and centre diff past various launch control strategies to the wipers and lights, but none of that need delay me here. All the readouts for fuel, water and oil are in a box pointing at my nonexistent co-driver. All I have to look at is a gear indicator and a change-up light – there’s not even a rev-counter.
The pedal box appears conventional though the clutch is small and displaced substantially to the left. Once the car is rolling, it plays no further role in proceedings.
Loeb leans in to tell me how to do it. This is encouraging. I can remember Darren Turner doing this with an Aston Martin DBR9 and how much more at ease I felt after his reassurance – but not this time. Loeb is not known for his communication skills and simply shows me the stage mode switch, to be activated only once the car is underway, and how the gear paddle (there is just one) works. You pull it towards you to change up and push it away to change down. There is a gearlever sprouting from the floor but it’s not the huge handle it at first seems – that’s the handbrake. The gearlever itself is vestigial and only to be used if the paddle stops working. I ask Loeb if there’s anything else I need to know, he offers a small shrug in return and returns to talking technical with his engineer, Didier Clement. Someone slams the door and I am alone.
The engine starts up with a rude farting noise but it is tractable enough once you’ve negotiated the engagement of the sharp but hardly savage carbon triple-plate clutch. I engage stage mode and the ride begins.
Though it seems entirely lost on politicians, all speed is relative. To whit if you drive at 200mph down a runway big enough to land a Vulcan bomber it might seem merely rather rapid. But drive at half that speed down a tree-lined gravel path and you’ll soon start to question your own sanity. This is not helped by a problem that is precisely the reverse of what I had anticipated.
I thought that driving one of these beasts at speed on gravel would be an inherently difficult thing to do. It would need to be provoked into drifts and then controlled with a degree of precision that struck me as being at odds with the vague, loosely assembled surface beneath. This car has no traction control, stability control or ABS so responds exclusively to commands issued by your feet and hands without the ability to interpret or moderate.
But while it accrues speed with dazzlingly little effort as you barrel down this narrow stone-strewn channel until the French countryside is passing your ears like something out of Star Wars, it doesn’t seem difficult at all. In fact the faster you go, the better it feels, like a slicks-and-wings racer. Even without left-foot braking or dusting off my never particularly convincing Scandinavian flick, driving the C4 very fast seems a natural, straightforward process. The car is very reactive to the throttle and will change direction as willingly as it changes speed according to its opening, but that’s an entirely good thing. If you drove this WRC like you might a racing car, it would understeer its way around every corner. But if you brake and turn simultaneously and sooner than seems sensible, it flows gently into an oversteering attitude that can then be exploited with the throttle until you reach the stage where the nose is pointing at the corner, the car is travelling around it and you’re sitting there using next to no lock – opposite or otherwise – and wondering what all the fuss is about. The only other car I’ve ever driven hard on the loose was a Mk2 Escort, and it was far harder to control than this.
The C4 is also astoundingly comfortable. Its suspension is so soft you can see the nose rise and fall with every application of throttle or brake, yet so strong and well damped that potholes which would rip a strut clean off a normal car feel like small divots – if you feel them at all.
It is fair to say that I returned to the awning where I had first made my acquaintance with the C4 feeling rather pleased with myself. True, no one leant in with a contract in one hand and a Mont Blanc in the other, but I put that down to a certain Gallic insouciance. I felt that, in the circumstances, I had done well enough.
I wanted to go and talk weapons-grade rallying technique with Loeb but he seemed not to want to play, and when I later sat down to interview him he was as hard a subject as I’d been led to believe. Never rude, nor even monosyllabic, he nevertheless was disinclined to indulge the journalist with anything more than straight, perfunctory answers to each question. It was my bad luck that I’d found the one area of his job in which this five-times (and counting) World Rally Champion and one-time professional gymnast is clearly not comfortable.
Still, my ride with him awaited and, despite being quite scared by the prospect, my earlier experience in the car made me look forward to it too. How different could it be to the experience I’d already had on the other side of the car?
No more different than Usain Bolt covering 100 metres in 9.58sec and my seven-year-old falling over in the three-legged race at sports day. Being kind, you could say both were running at the time.
When I play the voice recorder tape back now, all I can here are my giggles and his gearchanges as he runs straight up through the box to sixth. And holds it there flat as we approach a righthand bend over a crest I took rather cautiously in third but thought would probably be all right in fourth. Loeb never even looks like braking and I suspect the only reason he even lifted was to ease the car into a drift and stop it running wide at the exit. It is traditional British reserve alone that stops me from screaming.
The memory is a bit confused for the next few seconds as the brain realises that this is an entirely different level of sensory assault, requiring an entirely different level of concentration. It reboots just as we pass the point at which I’d turned back during my drive; this time we plunge down into a forest. The track is narrower here and studded with trees that Sébastien appears not to have noticed.
But the view out the window is nothing like as interesting as the one to my left. Loeb doesn’t steer, accelerate and brake like the rest of us; it’s as if his limbs are loosely tied together by some complex belt arrangement so that there is never a movement from one without a commensurate adjustment from another. When I’d asked him to define his driving style I thought his ‘I don’t know’ response was the bored reaction to a poor and overly-familiar question – but in these few moments I can see why. His actions are natural, fluid, economical and almost casual in a way you couldn’t learn and must therefore be instinctive. When he is sideways between the trees at 100mph he’s not thinking about catching slides, managing masses and balancing throttles – he’s probably thinking about dinner.
His left foot is the most interesting. He uses it to slow the car as you’d expect, but also to give the brake a jab to neutralise understeer, or a long and light caress in faster corners just to trim the car’s attitude. Sometimes he appears to be on both pedals at the same time, but so wild is the ride and so keen am I not to produce a new interior design for the C4, I can’t stare at the pedals for long.
We arrive back at the start and he begins another lap, perhaps a shade faster than the last, but because I now have at least a rough idea of what’s ahead I find a small space in my head to think a little. Above anything you can see Loeb do, what strikes most is his total faith that come what may, it will stick. That’s impressive enough on a race track when you know what’s under your wheels; out here in the forest it’s nothing less than astonishing.
I only know the ride is over when he reaches down and flicks the engine out of stage mode. I look across to find Sébastien Loeb replaced by someone wearing an ear-to-ear grin. “Was that OK?” he asks between chuckles. “Unbelievable, how was it for you?” I stammer back. “Very good,” he replies, “except in my ears all I hear is laughing.” I’d forgotten our helmets are wired for sound, a fact he clearly finds hilarious.
So now I ask the killer question. “How hard were you trying? Eighty per cent?” I venture. “Oh no, that was faster than a stage.” Faster? “Yes, I’ve been round here many times – I know where it goes, I can push harder than normal.”
We laugh some more, shake hands and part like old friends. But as Loeb exits the C4 and others approach, so the shutters come down. I’d seen the same phenomenon the only time I’d met Ayrton Senna – a man open and charming in the car, impenetrable out of it.
As I’m leaving I’m handed a memory stick. It contains video recorded on a mini-cam I’d not seen inside the car. There’s no sound, which spares me from my own yelpings, but while I can see everything from the initial fear to the final rictus grin on my face, Loeb’s hitherto unseen demeanour is more interesting by far.
At the start he is impassive, in the zone, doing his thing. He might as well be alone. But shortly after the start he looks at me, the concern clear through his open-faced helmet. Then he smiles, presumably as he realises the noises he’s hearing are not those of a man experiencing myocardial infarction, just a ride beyond his imagining. He continues looking across to me every so often, the corners of his mouth creasing a little more each time as he hurls the C4 across the landscape. In the car I could see none of this so there’s no way he’s doing it for my benefit, not that he ever would. He’s just enjoying my reaction.
This, then, is the real Sébastien Loeb, in his natural environment, doing what he was born to do. Here where there is no party line to tread, no awkward questions and no tape recorders, he can be himself. It’s just two blokes in an incredible car on a gravel track. For a moment I’m not a journalist but a companion, and in that moment I catch a glimpse of a man you could spend your life failing to spot from outside the cockpit. Not just his discipline’s greatest exponent, but a fun and considerate human being too. Knowing what I know now I’ll not look at him, or his car, in the same way again.