'The English won the 100-year war with France but it is not over'

Motor sport is not only dangerous, it is also ruthless. It is populated by competitive people with a burning desire to win – there is no room for sentiment. It is this ruthlessness that has earned Formula 1 the sobriquet of the Piranha Club, but other disciplines are no less hard-headed, perhaps none more so than rallying.

Remember Kris Meeke being sacked by Citroën in 2018? It wasn’t just the sacking but the manner of it that had us wincing. Meeke was being booted out, said Citroën, because of his “excessively high number of crashes”.

Last month, the axe fell equally mercilessly on one of the all-time great rally partnerships. It was announced that after 23 years together Sébastien Loeb, the nine-time world rally champion, was severing his partnership with co-driver Daniel Elena. The break-up appeared to be the result of a truly dreadful Dakar Rally for the pair in the Prodrive-built BRX1 car, which was marred with mechanical problems and navigational mistakes, which we discussed in detail in last month’s magazine.

Loeb posted the news on his Instagram account: “After five Dakar rallies together – and after discussions with the team – we came to the conclusion that maybe it would be good to try something else.”

Many saw the hand of Prodrive behind the announcement, not least Elena who swiftly responded with a social media post himself in the form of a video which showed him holding various race winning suits up to the camera while reflecting on his successes with Loeb over the years, with Citroën in the WRC and with Peugeot on the Dakar between 2016 and 2019.

He then takes aim at Prodrive: “They said ‘Elena doesn’t know how to navigate’, ‘Elena is bad, he loses Loeb too much time’. Before saying that, first listen to Elena. Your car is not built to win, your team is unstructured.”

He goes on: “Your philosophy is simple: we are Prodrive, we are the greatest team in the world, we’ve won everything. But the last thing you won in the WRC was in 2003 with Solberg.”

In keeping with the times he even managed to get in a good old-fashioned bit of Anglo-French baiting: “The English won the 100-year war with France, but hey, I am Monégasque, so I am sorry, but the war is not over.”

All of which is good knockabout fun, but the fact is that it’s hardly surprising Elena feels aggrieved. His partnership with Loeb was awesome. At the top of their game, the pair dominated the WRC for a decade and, as someone worked out, won 44% of the WRC rounds they started together. They were also by all accounts close friends (a fact alluded to by Elena when he said he wouldn’t let Prodrive’s actions affect his friendship with the driver.)

But here’s the thing: none of the above matters. While Elena’s anger at Prodrive is understandable, it is clear that the break-up would not have happened had Loeb himself not sanctioned it.

At 47, Loeb’s legacy as one of the greatest rally drivers of all time is assured but it is not enough. He wants more glory and no one, not even a loyal and faithful partner and friend is going to stand in his way. Because when push comes to shove, nine world titles count for very little. As I said, a ruthless business.

This month we celebrate the life of Murray Walker who sadly died in March. Despite the sadness, the overwhelming sense in the Motor Sport office was one of gratitude – for his support over the years and his enthusiasm for motor racing of all forms.

Murray was 97, which tempers the sadness with the knowledge that his was a long life lived well. There is no such solace in the news that Sabine Schmitz, the Queen of the Nürburgring, also died last month from cancer. She was 51. And as we go to press we hear of the death of Johnny Dumfries,  age 62, the Scotsman who abandoned his aristocratic birthright to pursue a life of racing.

In a tale of riches to rags to riches he started out as a van driver for Frank Williams before dominating F3, partnering Senna at Lotus in F1 and winning Le Mans with Jaguar in 1988 before walking away from the sport.

We interviewed him at the end of last year in what turned out to be the last time he spoke in-depth about his racing career. We asked him, what does he miss about the sport?

“You know, everyone always talks about missing the adrenaline, but it’s not that. It’s about the desire to compete and win, really close relationships, working with a team, living in that pressurised environment. That’s irreplaceable and leaves a big hole.”

The feeling’s mutual.

Joe Dunn, editor

Follow Joe on Twitter @joedunn90