New peaks to conquer

He’s surely modern motor sport’s most versatile man, but endless success has not diluted Sébastien Loeb’s appetite for a challenge
Writer Anthony Peacock

So there it is. The end of an era, or perhaps the dawn of a new one. After more than a decade of effortless dominance of the World Rally Championship (to the extent that he won every single stage of the 2005 Tour de Corse, for instance) Sébastien Loeb is ready to turn his back on the sport he made his own. At the time of writing, his last World Rally Championship event is scheduled to be the Rallye de France in October, which is aptly run close to his home town of Hagenau, Alsace.

The Rallye de France moved from Corsica to the mainland in 2010; ostensibly to be closer to larger centres of population, but in actual fact to pay tribute to France’s biggest rallying hero. How many sports stars have sufficient stature to divert a championship calendar into their back garden?

Sure enough, that year Loeb won his seventh world title after a triumphant superspecial stage around the streets where he grew up, having earlier driven past the front door of his old house. It was an astonishing recognition of just how far he had come. At the end of the stage his family and friends – most of whom he had known from childhood – were waiting to meet their newly crowned, home-grown seven-time champion, with champagne and a cake.

The hero truly returns. It’s the only time I have ever seen him cry.

This was the one perfect moment: what he describes as the single highlight of a stellar career that defies description.

“If I had to choose just one best memory, it would be that,” he says. “To experience this at home and see everybody I knew at the end of the stage was incredible. This was the last stage and of course I had to get back to service to finish the rally. So the only regret is that I couldn’t stay longer to enjoy the moment. But I’ll always remember it.”

So no wonder he has chosen France for what is expected to be his final rally. There are unlikely to be more tears this time but what is certain is that there will be a massive turnout to watch the master at work one last time. Already the Rallye de France organisers are talking about the potential for the biggest crowd yet seen in the modern era of rallying.

We say ‘expected’ to be his final event, though, because Citroën is still working hard to persuade him to change his mind. Loeb’s schedule this year is just four rallies out of 13, yet at the mid-point of the season, he’s still the highest-scoring of four Citroën drivers. The rest compete full time. That’s how good he is, and also why Citroën is so keen to get him to do as many rallies as possible. The man himself is not so enthusiastic: been there, done it, seen it – designed the T-shirt, in fact.

A quick round-up of the numbers. His 78 world rally victories are astonishing enough, but if you scratch the surface you’ll see that he’s won 46.7 per cent of all the rallies he’s started. Fangio won 46.1 per cent of all his races. Consider that one for a little while.

Consider also that the next most successful driver in terms of wins, Marcus Grönholm, has 30 victories. That’s less than half Sébastien’s total. Not to mention the fact that Sébastien impressed on his first run in the Le Mans 24 Hours and finished second at the next time of asking.

Then there was his rumoured move to Formula 1 with Toro Rosso at the end of 2009, which actually came much closer to happening than many people think.

Now, at the age of 39, he’s just pulverised the Pikes Peak record – by a minute and a half – and he’s ready for his first season in World Touring Cars next year (a programme that was announced the week before he conquered Colorado). The really incredible thing about Sébastien Loeb is not so much the fact that he’s been on top of motor sport for so long – but that he’s willing, at the age of nearly 40, to start again at the bottom. Because this is exactly what he’s expecting from World Touring Cars next year: a standing start.

“I don’t think we’re going to win straight away; it’s certainly going to be hard because we’ll be starting from zero,” he says. “But I hope we’ll get there at some point. It’s never going to be guaranteed that we will, but we’re certainly going to try.”

There were a number of factors that led to this decision – quixotic in the eyes of some people – after winning nine world titles back to back. At the very least, the doubters said, he should stick around long enough to make it 10 world titles…

Sébastien argues that he has already, because he also won the 2001 Junior World Rally Championship. “Valentino Rossi counts his 125cc world title, so there’s no reason why I can’t count this one, “ says Loeb, very reasonably.

But it’s not really the numbers or heritage that excite him: in fact he’s surprisingly sketchy on the sport’s history. Instead, it’s the challenge. It’s not a colossal exaggeration to say that he’s bored of winning. In preparation for his conversion to racing Sébastien has been contesting the FIA GT Championship this year and says that one of the best things about it is, “Finally, nobody expects me to win.” It’s rare to hear such a fact celebrated by a racing driver, but the Frenchman definitely means it.

Truth is, Sébastien didn’t even want to do four rallies this year – but he did it as a favour to Citroën, with whom he has signed a long-term deal as a brand ambassador. As PSA Group board member Jean-Marc Gales once famously pointed out: “Citroën without Loeb would be like Paris without the Eiffel Tower.”

But Loeb wanted his ambassadorship to mean something, which is how he’s ended up with the touring car programme. “I wasn’t interested in any sort of role where I would end up visiting a few factories and opening dealerships; that’s of no real interest to me,” he says. “I realised at an early point that whatever happened I needed to drive for my own satisfaction: I wasn’t ready to stop completely. That had a big impact on my decision for the future.”

Eiffel Tower or not, Loeb gave some “serious” thought to walking away from Citroën to join Volkswagen two years ago. Volkswagen came in at exactly the right time to make a swoop for the multiple champion: the much-publicised feud with Sébastien Ogier (grossly exaggerated, according to Loeb) was at its height and the Germans could offer a salary that initially Citroën was unable to match – although it subsequently increased its offer.

This was by no means Loeb’s key motivation – “I’ve earned more money than I ever dreamed of, anyway”. Rather, his real reason for rejecting the German giant was that he wanted to stop soon. Believe it or not, the thought of retirement first crossed Loeb’s mind at the end of 2005, when Citroën took a year’s hiatus from the sport.

“I would have been throwing away all those years of history with Citroën for what, one year of competition?” says Loeb. “It just didn’t make sense.”

Volkswagen spent 2012 just testing, of course, before embarking on its first full season this year with Ogier as lead driver. “Good luck to him,” says Loeb. “There’s no problem between us now at all. When we were team-mates, there were some things happening between us that were unfair. I wasn’t asking for preferential treatment, just to be treated equally. That didn’t happen, but it’s all history; it doesn’t matter…”

Ogier claimed at the time that Loeb played a political game to force him out. Loeb just shrugs in an ‘if that’s what he wants to think’ type of way. Not that Ogier is likely to complain, because he wound up with a commanding points lead in the Volkswagen Polo R WRC this year. So Loeb ‘forcing him out’ actually did him a huge favour. The older Sébastien chuckles; this is clearly something he finds genuinely amusing. Perhaps because the truth is that he, personally, never had any real intention of joining Volkswagen in the first place, for all the reasons he mentions above.

But the biggest reason he didn’t jump ship is that despite his chosen profession, Loeb is by no means a risk taker. He says that the question he’s been asked most often throughout his career is: ‘what’s your secret?’ Normally he just smiles pleasantly and shrugs a polite “I don’t know”. Now we can at last reveal it. The secret, you see, is that there is no secret. Or rather, there is just one small thing…

“What I do is try never to go over my limit,” he says. “I drive with a little bit of margin. Otherwise you risk going off. You see a lot of people step over the limit from time to time and it doesn’t normally go well. So, for example, when we start each rally on a Friday I push hard but not at a pace that feels uncomfortable. Then I just see where we are at the end of the day. If I’m feeling good and we’re well placed, then we push for the win over the next two days, but only if we can do this without taking too many risks. If it’s not possible, then we just drive for the points. I’m not saying that I cannot take risks, or that I’ve never taken risks – you take a risk each time you step in the rally car – but just that I avoid them when there’s nothing much to gain.”

It’s a telling insight into his psychology. When Sébastien does take risks, the results are spectacular. Look at the 2010 Rally New Zealand, when unusually he hit a bridge on day one and dropped down the order. With nothing to lose, he staged a monumental fightback, at one point scalping 23 seconds on a single stage from his closest rival. From nowhere he came close to winning. “Yes, on that occasion I was taking a few risks,” he says, with a grin. “That was probably the best ever day I had in a rally car.” In fact, he had another slight incident on the final day, which meant that he ‘only’ finished on the podium. It was the same story on the 2006 Monte Carlo Rally. At the end of the first day he was caught by a bit of black ice and skated off the road. He rejoined the following day, with a five-minute penalty (as the rules stipulated) for having missed a stage. He finished second – and it was about then that the nickname ET (an allusion to his seemingly unearthly abilities) first began to circulate.

But the truth is that he’s resoundingly normal. He likes fast cars and he flies a helicopter, but apart from that he hangs out with the same people he always did and does all the same sort of things that normal people do. He loves Saturday mornings, hates getting up early, eats steak (his favourite food is rib of beef) and drinks red wine. And he’s not even convinced by all of his toys. “I change my cars every six months or so,” he says, having got through various Lamborghinis, Porsches and Ferraris to date. “Something comes out and I think ‘it would be great to have that’ but in the end, no matter how good it is, you are never going to get the same sensations in a road car as you are in a competition car. So then I get bored. I suppose I’m not really all that into it.”

Like all top drivers, Sébastien shares that preoccupation to move quickly onto the next thing, whatever that is. Even talking to him now, he’s doing his very best to hide the fact that he’s surreptitiously eyeing the clock.

But it wasn’t just the fact that he wanted a new challenge that prompted him to leave the familiar world of the WRC.

He has also become increasingly aware of the dangers of the sport and the attractions of being at home. Although his recent time at Pikes Peak meant that he was piloting an 875-horsepower car made of carbon fibre beside sheer drops, and that he didn’t have a full weekend at home for eight weeks. So for once in his life he failed slightly – at that, in any case.

“Actually, this year I’ve been busier than I was when I was rallying full-time,” he points out – not surprising given that he also managed to find time to squeeze in a couple of rounds of the Porsche Supercup, a small rally in Switzerland with his wife Séverine as co-driver, and some testing of Citroen’s WTCC prototype. Not to mention the small matter of the ‘Race to the Clouds’ in Colorado.

“It wasn’t completely the plan to do all of that, but I couldn’t let the chance to do Pikes Peak go,” he says. “That was the most extreme car I’ve ever driven in my career as it’s one horsepower per kilogram and feels faster than a Formula 1 car. It was an amazing experience – the race of the year for me – but the risks are high as well. There are some places where if you go off, you’re dead…”

It was an accident in America last year that got Loeb thinking: the impact that Marcus Grönholm had in practice for the X Games, where Loeb was also competing – meaning that he witnessed the drama at close quarters. Marcus made a complete recovery, but he had suffered severe concussion and for a little while there was a fear that the effects could be more far-reaching. Since that accident last summer, Marcus has not driven competitively. Loeb of course went on to win the X Games, on his debut.

“You can have a great career and do everything right, then unexpectedly something like that can happen,” Loeb says. “I would never say that this accident for Marcus convinced me to stop, as you know that the risks are always there, but it certainly made me consider things a bit more.”

There’s no such thing as the law of averages, but over the course of 167 world rally starts and countless national events, the Frenchman has never seriously hurt himself in a rally car. In fact, he’s only ever had one really big accident: the Acropolis Rally in 2009, when his Citroën C4 WRC barrel-rolled.

It’s something that you see from time to time with those who are touched by effortless genius: ask Markku Alén, for example, about the proudest moment of his career and he’ll say that it’s his record for the highest number of fastest stage times (which was beaten only by Loeb, just a couple of years ago in Spain) and the fact that he never broke a bone or shed a drop of blood in a rally car. With Loeb, it’s the same.

And that’s also why we’re unlikely to see the Frenchman compete at Le Mans again: certainly not in a prototype. “Rallying might be dangerous, but Le Mans is even more dangerous,” he says. “The World Touring Car Championship is just right for me now: the level of safety is high, the racing is competitive and the travel is not so frenetic as it is in rallying. And it was also a way for me to continue the relationship with Citroën, because this is a very interesting championship for them, too. I think we can have some good battles. The fight is always the most interesting thing.”

One of Loeb’s favourite rallies is actually one he lost: Rally New Zealand 2007, where he and Grönholm started the final stage more or less neck and neck. Grönholm ended up winning the rally – by just 0.3 seconds. “That was fantastic; a rally I will always remember,” says Loeb. “If I had to say which was the most exciting rally of my career, it would be that one.”

And his biggest rival? He ticks off a mental list of drivers, fires out a few names. Interestingly, Ogier is not one of them but he cites current team-mate Mikko Hirvonen. “Just because Mikko is so consistent,” says Loeb. “There were a couple of times when I really had to be careful, not because he was quicker than me but because he kept on scoring the points. And that’s how you win championships.”

Ultimately it comes down to two people. The first is Grönholm. “There were times when Marcus would put in some times that were just crazy,” says Loeb. “Sure, it didn’t always work out for him but Marcus was super-fast. And it always seemed to end up with me and him fighting for the win.”

But there was one person who pushed Loeb even harder, and more consistently.

“That would be Jean-François Berenguer, when we were both doing the Citroën Saxo Kit Car Trophy,” says Loeb. “He was older than me, but incredibly tough to beat. Definitely one of the fastest drivers I have ever seen.”

Berenguer only rallies from time to time now, using old cars whenever his budget permits.

But he still wins national rallies in France.

And more than that, he’ll always have the immense satisfaction of having been the biggest rival to the greatest rally driver – some would say the greatest driver – of all time.

Reach for the sky
Sébastien Loeb demolished the Pikes Peak course record with Peugeot, a performance that’s likely to spur rivals into action

Until the mid-1970s, Pikes Peak, the second-oldest motor racing event in the USA, was very much a local event for NASCAR-style stock cars and traditional front-engined sprint racers. However, the 12.42-mile course that snakes through 156 corners and ascends from 9390 ft to 14,110 ft was unpaved and eventually drew attention from Californian buggy drivers such as Rick and Roger Mears. They were the first ‘foreigners’ to beat the locals, which included the Unser family.

Rally cars really put Pikes Peak on the international map in the 1980s. Michèle Mouton upset the locals by breaking the overall record in 1985 with a time of 11min 25sec in her Audi Quattro. Amends were made when Bobby Unser knocked 16sec off her time 12 months later, in another Quattro. A year later Walter Röhrl was first to break the 11-minute barrier in a special Quattro, before Ari Vatanen broke the record in 1988 with a Peugeot 405 Turbo. Six years later Rod Millen came tantalisingly close to breaking the 10-minute barrier in a Toyota Celica, missing out by just five seconds. Amazingly that record stood for 13 years before Nobuhiro ‘Monster’ Tajima set a new record of 10min 01sec in a Suzuki XL7.

By then environmentalists had forced the authorities to pave the highway in parts, but Tajima did not set a new record of 9min 51sec until 2011 – the final year with some dirt sections remaining. Last year four drivers broke the magical 10-minute mark and Rhys Millen (Hyundai Genesis Coupé) set a new record of 9min 46sec.

Nobody doubted that Sébastien Loeb would win this year, but what time could he achieve? The weather at Pikes Peak is extremely fickle. It can be sunny and dry one minute and pouring with rain, hail or even snow the next. Would the weather gods allow Loeb a dry run? That was important given that slick tyres can now be used.

As it turned out Loeb, who was first off the line, had a drama-free dry run. His time of 8min 13sec drew gasps from the thousands of spectators. Rhys Millen was second, 48sec behind, in a Hyundai-powered Grand-Am prototype. Loeb said Peugeot’s engineers had predicted a possible 8min 15sec run, but he beat both their forecast and the climate. In the end, only the first six cars ran when the course was still fully dry.

Eight drivers beat the 10-minute barrier – including Tajima, who finished fifth in his electric E-Runner (which had to run with intermediates, because rain was falling). Two factory Mitsubishi electric cars had qualified faster, but they had to endure even damper conditions and finished 13th and 14th.

What are the odds that Audi is figuring out how to reclaim its title? The battle for bragging rights is on at the world’s greatest mountain climb. John Rettie