He then went on to the official Formula One test in Barcelona a week later, where he would pit himself against people like Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. So no pressure then.
The tension built up as Loeb took his time to make his way out onto the track in Barcelona, not emerging from the pit lane until mid-morning. Then, the times started to come; even though it was the first time he had ever even seen the Circuit de Catalunya (although he did admit to getting in some practice on the PlayStation).
The morning was spent finding the right braking points but in the afternoon he really got the job done and ended up eighth fastest overall after 82 laps: comfortably more than a grand prix distance. One of the people he beat, for example, was current Williams driver Bruno Senna - by two and a half seconds.
Of course, you can never tell too much from off-season testing: there are so many variations in terms of car specification and fuel loads. But still, it was a stupefyingly impressive debut.
“I’m happy because at the end of the afternoon I was really feeling comfortable in the car,” explained Loeb, resplendent in his new Red Bull overalls. “I didn’t make any mistakes and there were no big moments, I just tried to improve without taking big risks. And in the end, the time was not so bad: and I know now that I can go faster.”
One of the biggest difficulties he faced was getting up to speed instantly: otherwise he would have been even quicker. “We had low fuel and new tyres for our fast runs,” he added. “When you use new tyres it is the first lap that is best, but I always needed two laps to get in the rhythm again. So I probably lost my opportunity to do better. But I’m satisfied that I consistently improved during the day.”
That one day was enough to make most people conclude that Loeb really could have a future as a Formula One driver. And actually, the idea appealed to him. At the end of 2009, with another world rally title safely in the bag, a plan was hatched for Loeb to start the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix with Toro Rosso. If all went well, he would switch to Formula One full-time and do the complete season in 2009.
It was a genuine career crossroads, but in the end the decision was made for him, as he was not given the necessary superlicence for Formula One due to lack of F1 experience. At the time it was disappointing, but now he has no regrets. “For a little while it looked like there really might be an opportunity but then it went away so that was that,” Sebastien concluded. “Maybe it would not have been a good idea anyway: testing is one thing, racing is another.”
We can’t help thinking though: what if?