Wot, no co-driver?

Time spent on the PlayStation isn’t always wasted. In this case it led a rally champion to a first stint at Le Mans – with no-one in the left-hand seat

The idea came up as Sébastien Loeb was playing on his PlayStation one day two years ago. The game giant was one of the reigning World Rally Champion’s personal sponsors, and also a long-time backer of Henri Pescarolo’s Le Mans squad.

The conclusion was inevitable, and Loeb soon had a chance to test the Pescarolo-Judd. He never imagined, though, that those tentative first laps would eventually lead him to the most famous endurance race of all: Le Mans.

“As soon as I tested the car, I enjoyed it a lot,” said Loeb. “The difficult part was persuading my boss, Guy Frequelin, to let me take part.” Frequelin could hardly say no, having successfully competed at Le Mans himself in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But Loeb still had a mountain to climb, as he fought to get to grips with some serious aerodynamics. His regular Citroën Xsara WRC had about as much downforce as a helium balloon – as well as being 100mph slower and 300kg lighter. 

On June 5, 2005, two weeks before the race, Loeb had what he called “quite a busy day”. In the afternoon he won the Rally of Turkey. Instead of spraying champagne he was whisked to Antalya airport, where a private plane was waiting to take him to Le Mans in order to qualify in the evening. 

“Everyone was panicking but I felt quite calm,” remembered Loeb. “I got a bit of sleep on the plane before qualifying the car. I was running in the dark for the first time, which was good. Although it was also raining, which was not so good.”

The Frenchman’s legendary sang-froid had not deserted him at 9pm two weeks later, as he waited for the Pescarolo to come into the pits so that he could start his first stint. With the minimum of fuss, Loeb was strapped in and roared off into the night. Just over three and half minutes later, he completed his first lap right on the pace. What impressed Henri Pescarolo most was not so much his speed but his lack of mistakes.

Loeb himself disagreed. “I went straight on once and I had a moment overtaking a slower car. But it wasn’t too bad: in an endurance race you can’t go making mistakes on every lap, and this car was nowhere near as forgiving as my rally car.”

Pescarolo felt confident enough to send Loeb straight out for another stint, where he managed to maintain second overall. By the following morning, having done the bulk of a flawless night shift, he was ready for a doze.

“I was just drifting off to sleep when I heard something on the commentary about the No17 car having an accident,” he remembered. “I got up and ran to the pits. Unfortunately, Soheil Ayari had gone off and the car was too damaged to continue. A shame, as I really believe we could have won.”

At least he didn’t have to wait long to win again. Just a week later, Loeb claimed the Acropolis Rally in Greece. 

His love affair with Le Mans continued, though: this year Loeb was second in a revised line-up minus the unfortunate Ayari. “I’d like to do it again, but it gets harder and harder to win,” he said. “Still, there’s always next year…”