The name Sébastien Loeb is now etched into rally legend, but at the 2002 Monte Carlo Rally the arrival of the relatively unknown Frenchman into the Citroën works team sent shockwaves throughout the sport. Loeb announced himself 18 years ago and a rallying star was born.
Citroën was building up to a full-time entry for the 2003 season by running a part-time campaign for 2002. Compared to the heavy hitters of Ford, Peugeot, Subaru and Mitsubishi, the Gallic team was supposedly making a relatively low-key entry into the championship.
Tommi Mäkinen had made a big money move to Subaru, whilst other teams fielded stars such as Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz, Richard Burns and Marcus Gronholm, not to mention rally winners like Gilles Panizzi, François Delecour and Harri Rovanperä.
Prior to 2002, Mäkinen had won the event three times on the trot. In spite of being in a new team at Subaru driving an unfamiliar car, the Finn was still expected to be very competitive.
If he won this time out it would be both a record fourth consecutive Monte win and a record-breaking 24th WRC victory overall.
This made what was to come all the more remarkable in this, Loeb’s first WRC outing at the Monte Carlo Rally.
It soon became clear that the Junior Champion showed no fear in his regard of WRC grandees past or present, nor was he shy in competing on rallying’s biggest stage.
This was the opening round of the season and the Alsace native came flying out of the blocks.
“Not only did Loeb lead, but he did so sensationally”
The young Citroën pilot made a steady start to the rally, running sixth after Stage one. By Stage three he was up to fourth and a fastest time on Stage five meant he led by the end of Day one.
Not only did Loeb lead, but he did so sensationally, having a gap of over 30sec to nearest challenger Tommi Mäkinen.
A year previously, the former gymnast had just been starting his assault on the junior S1600 series and now he was first in the Monte Carlo Rally outright.
Throughout Day two, Loeb continued to extend his gap, apparently unflustered by his illustrious opposition.
The young charger had dominated the first two days of the rally. However, a mistake made in the service park by his team put a famous debut win in jeopardy.
Citroën elected to change in his tyres in service G, which allows for services of up to 10 minutes. Tyre changes were only permitted in services of up to 20 minutes, and thus they had broken the rules.
The stewards took a dim view and a two-minute penalty was applied. The French team decided to press on under appeal, hoping for the decision to be overturned.
The experienced Mäkinen began initially to turn up the wick throughout the first half of Day three, but then backed off towards the finish, thus allowing the youngster to take an incredible victory on the road.
In only his second outing in the Citroën WRC car and second Monte Carlo Rally, Loeb had fought and emerged victorious against a whole host of WRC legends.
Mäkinen was unperturbed, the four-time champion believing that with Loeb’s time penalty in hand he would easily take the win. However for a short period, he was very much mistaken.
Whilst officials deliberated over the appeal, the penalty was not immediately applied and the podium ceremonies went ahead as if there had been no infringement at all.
The provisional result stood and Mäkinen, having been denied his fourth consecutive win, could only look on with a face of thunder as Loeb sprayed champagne on the top step of the podium.
It looked as though the Finn may have lost his record-breaking win after all.
Despite the penalty looming over him, Loeb still revelled in his victory: “In my mind I have won this rally,” he said. “I don’t care what happens with the penalty now – in the eyes of the drivers and the spectators the fight is won on the stages, and we won that fight.”
Citroën were optimistic of winning their appeal and taking a famous win on the mountain stages. Team Principal Guy Frequelin saying, “We made a mistake – I accept responsibility for that. But in my view it was a minor mistake.”
“Mäkinen did not hold back from expressing his displeasure”
Mäkinen meanwhile did not hold back from expressing his displeasure: “At the end of the rally they told us that there were no time penalties. It’s a big disappointment at the moment. The whole thing is out of my hands – we have to wait and see what’s going on.”
The hopeful Citroën team did have sympathy for their compatriots at Peugeot, as highlighted by team principal Corrado Provera: “This is simply called a screw-up with a capital S. It can happen to anybody. There was no intention to cheat from Citroen, but on the other hand there are rules.”
Sparing such sympathy, Subaru team boss David Lapworth was confident of taking victory: “I can’t believe the verdict will be anything other than to uphold the stewards decision.”
Events then took another turn however, as politics played their part in sporting matters.
A contrite Citroën decided to withdraw their appeal the next day in order to “preserve good relations with the other competitors and the FIA”.
Mäkinen had his record-breaking win, but the result on the road was an ominous sign of things to come in the WRC.
Loeb had shown the world of rallying that the glory days of Mäkinen, McRae and Sainz were coming to an end. There was a new force to be reckoned with in the WRC.
It was a changing of the guard that would herald years of domination.