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Sebastien Loeb: The French Rally King

Credit: Michelin Motorsport

This is the second chapter in a new series that I will be doing over the coming months. I will look at one of the best racing drivers from their own country who are still racing now in whatever discipline they’re doing. Why are they the best driver from their country? Why are they so good? What makes them one of the best in the motorsport world? Today, it’s a French rally legend.

Sebastien Loeb is a driver that I admire a lot. I ask myself, what hasn’t he done? He’s driven numerous rally cars, single seaters including GP2 and F1 cars, touring cars, GTs, prototypes and something that will quite literally launch you up a mountain.

Lets look at the facts and stats. Nine World Rally Championships IN A ROW, the most WRC wins, the most WRC podiums, the most WRC stage wins, a 3-time Race of Champions winner, a 2nd place at the Le Mans 24 Hours, French sportsman of the year In 2007 and 2009 and he is the only person to win a race in 3 different FIA disciplines (WRC, WTCC and World Rallycross).

His mentality to not get outfoxed by anyone else and to stick to his game plan is one of many strengths that he has. Personally, I think that rallying is the hardest form of motorsport on four wheels. It’s about your ability to listen to your co-driver, reacting to your car and the conditions whilst avoiding the hazards that are just centimetres away from you as well as those vital racing driver skills which will get you a stage victory, never mind a rally win. To win 9 championships is ridiculous and to win them consecutively is unthinkable. Loeb mastered the art of rallying and no matter how hard the likes Gronholm, Solberg, Hirvonen and Ogier tried, when Loeb was on form nobody could stop him.

In his very first full season, he was challenging for the title even though he was against rally legends such as Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Richard Burns. He lost that 2003 championship by just 1 point to Petter Solberg but wouldn’t be beaten again.

A maiden title came in 2004 with 6 victories but 2005 was a special year for the Frenchman. He won all 12 stages in his home rally, the Tour de Corse, which marked the first time a driver had won every stage of a WRC rally. Incredible consistency and it just shows how self-motivated he is to not just win, but utterly dominate. He went onto win that rally for the next 3 years. Twelve podium and thirteen points-scoring finishes in a row were also new records in the series that year.

For years Loeb and Citroen was the attraction of WRC (Credit: Michelin Motorsport)

The famous Monte Carlo Rally is one of the toughest events in rallying yet Loeb has won it on 7 out of 10 occasions. In 2006, the 43-year-old took a 3rd world championship in a privateer but it was tough. Mid-season, he fell off his mountain bike and broke his arm, therefore missing the final four rallies. It was a massive chance for Marcus Gronholm to steal the championship but he missed out by just 1 point. A 5th place from the Finn sealed the title for Loeb despite Gronholm winning the final two rallies.

A bit of luck was needed but five consecutive finishes and a top 2 finish in every rally that Loeb started that year got him the championship. Utter dominance from ‘Le Patron’ or ‘The Boss’. Considering that it can all go wrong very easily in a split second in rallying, to finish a rally is an achievement in itself; to win so many rallies takes a mentality that 99.9% of people don’t have.

The rivalry with Marcus Gronholm grew to a climax in 2007 at Rally New Zealand. Loeb and Gronholm traded stage wins and the overall rally lead in a titanic battle. Gronholm probably had the better car but a few poor tyre choices kept Loeb in the game but he lost it by just 3 tenths of a second; one of the closest ever finishes. A true testament to Loeb for whittling away at the lead and not giving up.

Does he have any weaknesses? I don’t think so. He is such a complete driver and you just knew that if he was on a good day, he would win. Loeb on tarmac is unstoppable but he was just as good on gravel, snow and wet conditions. His ability to help the team to set up the car and get it right at every single service point is uncanny. But even if the setup wasn’t quite there, he can drive around the problem and make speed. A key aspect to a great rally driver.

After a three-year break, he returned to top-level Rallying earlier this month (Credit: Michelin Motorsport)

In 2009, he had some misfortune and only took the title by 1 point from Mikko Hirvonen. Despite winning the first 5 rallies, a drop of form and a Finnish rival who was at the peak of his career, Loeb found himself in a vulnerable position. He wasn’t leading going into the final event (Rally GB) and it wasn’t one if his strong events. The pressure on him to not lose the championship for the first time in five years was immense but not even that could overcome the Frenchman as he stormed to victory and a 6th world championship. An incredible performance over SS8 and SS9 made his lead go from 2.4 seconds to over 25.

Citroen was a huge asset to Loeb’s success. Just like F1, rallying is about the team as well as the driver. There’s even more emphasis on all of the mechanics and engineers because you’re having to make constant repairs in a very tight time limit. You can see the urgency of Loeb after he’s done a stage and has to give a quick interview, to get to the service area. The manufacturer support really does help because you can develop the cars and invest a lot of money to make your cars work.

Loeb had the same co-driver for all of his rallies, Daniel Elena. He played a big role to all of Loeb’s wins and championships. They were together from the very start of Loeb’s WRC career and they won Junior WRC events from the outset. The partnership was perfect. I feel that the co-driver isn’t given enough recognition because during the shakedowns, they have to get the difficulty if the corner exactly right for when it comes to the actual stage. We all know that being in the passenger seat when you’re going fast is much more scary than being in the drivers’ seat and to be looking up and down whilst reading your notes at the right moment and not messing it up as a very tough job. Very rarely did Elena get it wrong and he was just as good as Loeb when it came to pressure situations. Hats off to Elena.

Only 21 event retirements is a staggering achievement from 169 rallies. We all know that Loeb is something special but it’s not just his 9 world rally championships that makes him a legend, it’s also what else he’s done.

Co-driver Daniel Elena was a major factor in Loeb’s success. (Credit: Michelin Motorsport)

Having mastered rallying, he finished 4th in the 2013 FIA GT series and took 4 wins. Loeb’s smooth rallying style helped him get to grips with the big GT cars which require a specific driving style to get the most out of the car. He partnered Alvaro Parente in a McLaren MP4-12C and was best of the rest as Audi dominated that year.

Two outings in the Porsche Supercup in the same year came 5 years after Loeb nearly made it onto the main category on an F1 weekend. Tests with Renault and Red Bull was the most we saw from Loeb but in 2009 he nearly made his debut for Toro Rosso in Abu Dhabi but the FIA didn’t grant him a Super Licence which was a shame because it’s Sebastien Loeb for goodness sake; he’s not exactly a driver that nobody has heard of who’s bringing a sack of money with him. It wasn’t to be and Loeb never had a proper chance to have race in the pinnacle of motorsport.

An X Games winner in 2012 in the rallycross as well as winning his final WRC title in his home rally in France gave Loeb an almost perfect year and probably his best season of his career.

It wasn’t the last of Loeb and rallycross. He made his debut in the FIA World Rallycross Championship in 2016 and had had only one victory which was in Latvia in the same year. Whilst a lot of the drivers know the tracks very well, Loeb has had to learn every track in a short amount of time but Latvia was a new round in the championship so everybody was on a level playing field. Loeb took full advantage and dominated the weekend in tough conditions as well. The start is crucial in rallycross and Loeb has struggled with that. He didn’t have the best car last year and the VW Polo was very tough to beat, but the Frenchman will be back this year and looking to add to his victory tally.

Loeb collecting his third ROC title at Wembley in 2008 (Credit: Race of Champions)

Prior to rallycross, Loeb was part of the factory supported Citroen cars that were built for new 2014 WTCC regulations. He completed 2 full seasons (2014 and 2015), finishing 3rd in both years behind the dominant Jose Maria Lopez and compatriot, Yvan Muller. He took 6 wins but couldn’t master the touring cars like he did with his rallying. To be fair, he was up against a legend in touring cars and an Argentinian who couldn’t stop winning. I do think that Citroen did favour Lopez (controversial statement I know) because for Lopez to beat a 4-time-world champion in the WTCC and to beat him easily every weekend is too good to be true.

But back to Loeb. He won a few races but struggled with his racecraft. In reverse grid races, he didn’t make enough bold moves and couldn’t come through the field unlike his teammates. But, he wasn’t awfully bad and it just shows how hard it is to de well in two very different 4 wheeled championships.

Loeb has also won the Race of Champions on 3 occasions, back when the driver line-up was stellar, in 2003, 2005 and 2008. In 2004, he also won the Nations’ Cup for France with Jean Alesi. Loeb can drive well in any car and he loves competing against the very best. Give him the time and he can dominate any championship.

As you’ve read, Sebastien Loeb has done so much in his career. To talk in detail about everything he’s done will probably require a few dictionary-sized books. He’s not done yet.

This year, he will contest the Silverstone British Rallycross round (perhaps in preparation for when the world rallycross championship go there in May). This will come just one week after Loeb contest the Mexico round for the WRC. He will compete in 2 other WRC rounds this year: Corsica’s asphalt (5 – 8 April) and at Spain’s mixed surface fixture (25 – 28 October).

Sebastien Loeb, France’s greatest ever racing driver.

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