Friday | 07 May 2021

Loeb and Citroën: The perfect match

Sébastien Loeb and Citroën is undoubtedly the most successful relationship of the World Rally Car era. The great question is, could either have reached the levels they did without the other?

Jean-Marc Gales considered the question, then delivered the perfect answer.

The member of the managing board of PSA Peugeot Citroën knew it was impossible to understate the importance of Sébastien Loeb to Citroën. So he didn’t even try.

“His relation to Citroën is symbiotic,” said the Frenchman. “I always say Sébastien Loeb and Citroën is like Paris and the Eifel Tower – they belong together.”

Gales made that analogy in a season when Loeb’s leadership of a team he’d made his own was most threatened. It was 2011, when Sébastien Ogier wanted to make his own name and write his own story.

Ultimately, as history has shown, there was only room for one supersonic Séb in Satory.

For Citroën, it was always Loeb. And for Loeb, it really was always Citroën.

But who came first and could one have managed without the other?

Guy Fréquelin (right) spotted the talented Loeb at an early age

The French carmaker came first. And it came with some force. Remember the Xsara Coupé? Revealed in 1998, it was arguably the most advanced front-wheel drive car ever to win a round of the World Rally Championship.

Having slain the World Rally Cars on Tarmac, Guy Fréquelin’s squad set about building one of its own. The Xsara WRC landed in Spain a couple of years later and came very close to winning on its Catalan debut. A handful of months later in Corsica, it was a winner.

The Xsara started 58 rounds of the WRC and won 32 of them. Just four of those 32 wins was taken by a driver other than Loeb.

Fréquelin had spotted Loeb coming through the junior categories and was convinced to put some support behind him. The young Alsatian was given some help in a Citroën Saxo one-make series in France in 1999 before being given the keys to a Xsara kit car for Rallye du Var at the end of the following season. He won. And didn’t really stop winning for the next decade.

By 2003, Citroën was competing as a full factory team in the WRC. Very much the office junior, Loeb was determined to learn from seasoned superstars Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz. He outshone the pair of them. From the word go.

Technical director Jean-Claude Vaucard tailored the Xsara WRC perfectly to Loeb’s efficient, minimal and very, very fast driving style and the deal was done. At every turn, for every season, the car went faster and Loeb’s confidence grew.

When Citroën withdrew from the WRC to spend 2006 developing the Xsara’s successor, Loeb tested a Ford Focus RS WRC. He looked, but didn’t jump.

Instead, he won another title in a Kronos-run Xsara. Then rejoined the Red Army in a C4 WRC penned by Vaucard’s capable successor Xavier Mestelan-Pinon. The face might have changed. The result didn’t.

Fréquelin departed the team principal’s office at the end of 2007, with Olivier Quesnel replacing him – but the thinking is that the Fréq-Loeb axis of power remained very much in power long after. And why wouldn’t it?

If Citroën was a family, Guy and Séb were very much the father and son building a business which would deliver success down the generations.

Prior to 2004, France had enjoyed one drivers’ title for Didier Auriol. Loeb landed nine on the bounce to reconfigure people’s concept of success at rallying’s highest level. Citroën managed eight manufacturer titles. That’s 17 championships in nine years.

Could they have done it without each other? Not a chance.

The French revolution was a match made in heaven. 

This article is part of a an ongoing series of 25 stories that look back at the 25 years of the World Rally Car era, that will be published every Friday throughout 2021 on non-rally weeks.

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