"If he'd done F1 10 years ago he would have been world champion"
For the past five years Sébastien Loeb has totally dominated world rallying. But beyond that he is arguably today’s best all-round driver. Here’s why
By Rob Widdows
We are sitting in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Swansea on the eve of Wales Rally GB. You know, the one we still call the RAC Rally. The World Champion is dressed in the red of Citroën Sport. A PR lady is at his side, also suitably attired. But nobody pays the slightest attention to the man from Alsace who has won the World Rally Championship every season for the past five years.
This may have something to do with the fact that, if you want to see Sébastien Loeb in full flow, you first have to find a TV channel called Dave. Or, as thousands did last December, you walk miles into the Brecon Beacons and watch in awe as this quite extraordinary driver slides his Citroën C4 through the Welsh valleys. He makes the little red car do things that simply defy belief. Certainly Jari-Matti Latvala, having led the Wales Rally GB comfortably, could not believe the clocks when Monsieur Loeb came through to win on the final stage. “The better man won,” said Latvala. Yes, this Loeb is very special.
They call him the Michael Schumacher of rallying. Some say he is simply the best there has ever been. There are those who say he should retire, that his record-setting domination is not helping the sport. Where have we heard that before? But he has no intention of stopping at the height of his prowess, and that last-gasp victory in Wales was the perfect expression of Loeb’s deep-seated desire to win. Talking to him there is no sign of aggression, no evidence of the fire that surely burns within him. There is an inner calm, a tranquillity, and it is this that people speak of when examining his domination these past five years. Truth be told, he’d rather not have to talk to yet another journalist but – big French shrug – it’s all part of being so incredibly good at what he does.
“The only pleasure that I have now is in the car, driving the car,” he says. “I have five titles so one more or less would not make a big difference to my career. But I like what I do, and I like to fight.” He spreads his hands and shrugs. “I like to win, and I like to drive, so… Maybe it’s a bit less of a fight now that Marcus Grönholm has retired. He was the best, and for sure the 2007 season was the most exciting one for me. With him it was always tight – I had to drive at my best all the time to beat him. Maybe it looked easy from the outside but from the inside it was a big battle every time.”
Last autumn Loeb made a huge impression with his speed in a Red Bull Grand Prix car at a test in Barcelona after just a shakedown at a wet and slippery Silverstone. Not content with that, he jumped into the Peugeot 908 HDi Le Mans car and was immediately on the pace at Paul Ricard. He has already raced in the Le Mans 24 Hours twice for Henri Pescarolo, finishing a magnificent second in 2006. Inevitably there is speculation that he is about to make the jump from studs to slicks full-time.
“Maybe it will happen,” he smiles. “I don’t know… We’ll see in a few years. I will drive the rally car as long as I like it, and I will do some more with Peugeot – the sports car was great fun.” A long pause and a shrug of the shoulders. “I might stop if the FIA introduces the [normally aspirated] Super 2000 cars; that would be like a Formula 1 driver going back to F3. The 2000 Plus cars might be good – for me rallying has to be spectacular and for the spectators we need to keep the power and the sliding. OK, I support the need to cut costs but I don’t think having, or not having, a turbocharger makes a big difference to the cost. So, if we keep the turbo…”
On the opening day of Wales Rally GB the World Champion was ready to go home. One of the secrets of his success is his aversion to taking unnecessary risks, only pushing when he needs to. Conditions on this rally are notoriously tricky, especially now that gravel note crews are banned and the regulations dictate that only a single type of tyre may be used. This time it was the Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyre – and it does not like the ice which forms on the muddy forest tracks. Re-cutting of tread patterns is not allowed, which means that a combination of conditions – mud/ice/gravel – poses a huge challenge. And it was important to stay on the road if Citroën was to take the manufacturers’ title away from Ford.
“Yes, in these conditions I would rather go home,” says Loeb, the blue-grey eyes very sharply focused and intense. “It has been very difficult with many changes of conditions. The grip changes all the time and where there is ice in the corners we completely lose the grip. I tell you, it’s not funny being first on the road when it’s like this. I had a big moment, the car was completely sideways, and I was very close to an accident. After that I backed off; we need to score points for the team, and it’s been hard to read the road, to know exactly where the ice is. I’ve never won this rally, for many reasons, and of course I’d like to win this year. But every year we have to play for the championship – that is the priority – we have to do all we can to take the manufacturers’ title for the team.” It was later that he was able to go for the win.
What are the ingredients that make this man such a dominant force in the sport? There’s not been anyone like him in the modern era. Loeb is passionately loyal to Citroën, having been given his big break by the French team as a youngster. But that doesn’t prevent rival teams studying his performance, casting an envious eye.
“You’d have to say that, yes, he is the driver everybody wants to have,” says David Lapworth, technical director of the Subaru team. “He is genuinely amazing. He is consistent, he is fast, what can you say? There’s no question, the guy is exceptional. If you look at his split times he’s like a metronome; his concentration is extraordinary and he’s just faster more consistently than anyone else. He makes very few mistakes. Latvala and [Petter] Solberg can be faster on some stages, but they are more emotional drivers, they make the odd mistake. Not Loeb, he just bangs in the times, stage after stage.
“Most racing and rally drivers have learnt their skills in a very natural way and they don’t have much experience of other sports. They’ve been lucky to be in a sport where you can get pretty much to the top based on talent and that’s enough. But as a teenager Loeb was a French national champion gymnast – and if you want to get to the top as a gymnast you have to go to the gym every morning and every night, every week. You have a coach pushing you to do better and you need enormous discipline. It’s that mentality of having to work at it, to achieve perfection, that has helped to make him the driver he is. He works very hard at it, focuses on each and every detail.
“Very few drivers get to the top on talent alone – except perhaps for Colin McRae, who was a completely natural talent. If he’d had to get up at five o’clock every morning to go to the gym for two hours, have his coach telling him to push himself, then back to the gym before getting down to his homework, then forget it – Colin would never have been a World Champion. Sébastien, I think, has that mental discipline, that ability to work at his driving until he reaches perfection. His secret, I think, is not to be more aggressive than anyone else, but to be just that bit more perfect than anyone else. That’s where the speed is coming from.
“Petter is a great driver, but he’s more emotional, more flamboyant, and he drives much more by the sheer feel of the car. When he’s going fast Petter’s language is all about the feeling, the confidence, the ability to attack. I don’t think Loeb thinks in the same way, he’s more clinical if you like, more academic. There is no drama in the car, it’s all very relaxed, very calm. People who’ve driven with him say it’s not particularly spectacular – just very fast. Then there’s his attention to the technical detail – if you tried to do a long debrief with Colin, for example, after about five minutes he’d be looking for a magazine to read, he would be bored. His attitude was always – just give me the car, and let’s get out there.”
Lapworth is more than aware of the recent domination by Citroën, with Subaru not having won a championship since Solberg’s victory back in 2003. So does he subscribe to the view that the sport is suffering as a result?
“No, not at all,” he says. “You can’t blame Sébastien for that, can you? I blame the others, they need to learn from him.” Quite.
Rival Solberg agrees. Unusually for such a competitive spirit, Petter is happy to acknowledge Loeb’s achievements. “It’s not his fault he’s dominating the sport. It’s up to us to improve, to work harder and catch him. Sébastien is really, really good – very strategic, very clever, very consistent and he’s a perfectionist. But I don’t think it would be the same without the whole package – it’s not just him, it’s the whole Citroën team working in the same direction – and they are just doing everything right. It’s very impressive but we have to catch them. We have to.” Praise indeed, and typically straight from the man who was king before Loeb came along.
Sébastien was discovered, and nurtured, by former rally driver Guy Fréquelin, who went on to become team director of Citroën from 1989 to 2007. This charming and avuncular Frenchman took the youngster under his wing after watching him win in the junior category at home in Alsace.
“I came across him 10 years ago,” says Fréquelin with not a little pride, “and when I saw his times on the rally in Alsace I asked Citroën to take a look at him. What I saw was a young man who was very calm but with a deep determination. I wanted to give him a chance so we lent him a car for a rally in France and he won it. That was in 1999. The following year we put him into a Tarmac rally and he won that too, in difficult conditions, so we put him into the Junior World Championship and he won that as well. Of course we offered him a contract for the WRC in 2002 and that’s how it all started.”
But what was it that Fréquelin saw in the young man? His position within Citroën gave him the pick of the crop, with the power to sign the very best.
“He is gifted, that is the beginning. He is also very clever,” says Fréquelin, “and he makes good decisions. If he has a problem in the car, he thinks about it, works out a way of driving around it. He never goes faster than he has to and he is never nervous, always aware that he must get the car to the finish. When Carlos Sainz retired I explained to Seb that now he must take responsibility for the development of the car. He quickly understood perfectly the importance of this and that he must work closely with the engineers to get the best out of the car.
“Look, the results speak for themselves, no? He is just the best, the number one in the sport. To win five titles you must have everything of course – a good car, a good team and a good engineer. Sébastien has not only developed the car but he has built the team around him, just like Michael Schumacher did with Ferrari in F1. I was not at all surprised to see how fast he was in the Red Bull and in the Peugeot sports car. For sure, if he had done F1 10 years ago, he would have been World Champion. The two disciplines are very different, I know, but he is still very interested in F1.”
Within the Citroën encampment there is much talk about not only the importance of Loeb’s relationship with his engineers but also with his long-standing co-driver, Daniel Elena.
The Monegasque has been sitting alongside throughout the red rampage of the last few years. Loeb has no doubts about the contribution from the other seat.
“Yes, there is a huge amount of trust,” he smiles, leaning towards me to underline the point. “It is a long relationship with Daniel, and that helps a lot. We have been working together for 10 years and we have improved together. Year after year you trust each other more and more, and now it’s working perfectly. Daniel is also a friend, which is important, because when you are together in the car all the time it’s important that you get on well. I mean, if he was suddenly not well, it would be a very big disadvantage. We do the recces together, we work together completely. I talk to him through the recce stages, he writes it down as notes, and then he repeats it back to me once the rally is going. To trust somebody in this situation, it takes time, and with Daniel we are used to working together so, yes, it is very important.”
Elena, as you might expect, shuns the limelight, and his faith in Loeb is absolute. It needs to be when you are flat in top gear on a forest track.
“I cannot imagine doing a stage with anyone other than Seb,” he says. “I don’t think about it. Our relationship is strong, we are good friends, and that helps us to go faster. Trust is essential if you want to do the maximum speed. We discuss the stages, but he knows what he has to do. He concentrates on the driving, I do the rest. But I have to keep an eye on him on the roads between stages as he tends to go everywhere…”
Right now Loeb and Elena can do no wrong. The victory in Wales was one of their finest, coming through to win on the very last stage of the season, and in typically treacherous conditions. They are clearly comfortable at Citroën, surrounded by an adoring crew, and it’s hard to find anyone who would bet against another championship. The team has grown with Loeb, and he with the team.
“He really hasn’t changed at all,” says Citroën’s Marie-Pierre Rossi, “but he’s not as shy as he was when he first came to us. He’s matured, become more of a man. Seb is a normal person, very down to earth, and people like him. He needs time before he trusts people but once he builds up a relationship, it’s for good.”
So can this man walk on water? Is he God? Judging by his results in the WRC, his instant speed in the Red Bull and his pace in the Peugeot 908 he is arguably the greatest all-rounder in the sport today. But in Wales I overheard Monsieur Loeb telling the man from the Daily Star that his worst habit in a car was driving while drinking a coffee, eating a sandwich and steering with his knees. He is human, after all.