One of the great by-products in sport is that age-old debate of who is the all-time greatest in their particular discipline. A few glasses of beer or a bottle of red fuel discussions that inevitably run far later into the night than any of the participants intended.
Whether you subscribe or not to the view that Sebastien Loeb is rallying’s greatest ever driver, nobody can deny that the Frenchman’s WRC farewell at this week’s Rallye de France-Alsace marks the end of an era of dominance we are unlikely to witness again.
The figures are pretty compelling. Nine consecutive world titles and 78 wins from 167 WRC starts. An amazing win record of 46.7 per cent, and a figure that climbs to exactly one in two when it is acknowledged that 11 of those starts at the beginning of his career were in two-wheel drive machinery incapable of challenging for outright wins.
The statistics go on. One hundred and sixteen podiums, 896 stage wins, 1619 WRC points and just 20 retirements. Twice he has scored six straight wins, and from the 2008 Rallye d’Italia Sardegna to the following year’s Rally Argentina he scored 15 consecutive podiums.
Come Sunday afternoon in Strasbourg, we will only have the memories as the 39-year-old bids adieu to the WRC and sets off in search of more success with Citroen in the World Touring Car Championship.
That his final competitive act in a World Rally Car, barring mishaps during the previous three days, will be in his home town of Haguenau in the event that holds his greatest career memory, simply adds to a story that wouldn’t look out of place in a kids’ action comic.
Loeb is not one for great displays of emotion, but it’s hard to imagine there won’t be a tear or two shed in the DS3 WRC.
“First, I hope I can come to the end of the final stage in Haguenau!” Loeb told wrc.com. “It will be good to finish my career in that area, my home town, and, of course, it will be emotional. But on the other side I think it could be a bit easier because I have a new plan for the future. I will do something different, WTCC.
“It’s a new motivation and new goals. It’s the same style next year, with driving, competition and testing for the same team so it’s bit easier to accept the end of my WRC career. Maybe it’s even harder for my co-driver, Daniel (Elena), than it is for me to give up driving in WRC,” he admitted.
Bringing his rally career to a halt on home territory was natural for Loeb, whose status as one of France’s most revered sportsmen is not in doubt. He is a regular in the top 10 of the frequent polls, both in terms of popularity and the money he has earned from his celebrity status, which is estimated to be $45 million.
“It’s nice to finish in France. We decided to do four rallies this season and I don’t mind to finish in France, which is my home rally. The atmosphere is fantastic. It’s the rally where you have the best atmosphere in the season.
“My best moment was victory in France in 2010 when I won the rally and we won the two championships, drivers’ and manufacturers’, at the same time. It was the first year that the rally was in my home town so that was very special.
“There was pressure on me but I tried my best not to show it by withdrawing and blocking it out. I felt very relieved when we made it to the finish. Being crowned champion at home in Haguenau was something I would never have imagined possible. When I met up with my wife, Severine, and my friends on the road section back to Strasbourg I couldn’t help but shed a few tears,” said Loeb.
France has book-ended Loeb’s dominance of the WRC. In 2004 the man who traded a promising gymnastics career for rally driving celebrated his first title with a somersault on the podium in Ajaccio after sealing his maiden crown at the Tour de Corse. And title number nine was sealed in Strasbourg last year.
Don’t miss part two with Sebastien Loeb tomorrow.
'I couldn’t help but shed a few tears'