Friday | 09 Apr 2021

Long Read: The man who redefined the WRC

Nobody noticed the slightly apprehensive-looking Frenchman stepping out of car number 44 on the outskirts of Girona. Why would they?

It was Monday 19 April 1999 and this particular driver was wishing he could get on with the stage ahead. He couldn’t. The stage was cancelled. On to the next one. Finally, he could get going. Thirty-ninth fastest overall. Sixth quickest from a class of nine. That would do. For now.

By the next stage of Rally de España, he was second in class. By SS5? Fastest. From then on, Sébastien Loeb didn’t look back.

Loeb made the FIA World Rally Championship his own and, a decade on from that debut he had already rewritten the record books by becoming the first driver ever to win five straight drivers’ titles.

At the age of 46, Loeb remained on the pace, bagging his most recent podium finish, at Rally Turkey 2020

Another 10 years down the road and five had become nine and 79 event wins had also been slotted away. Along with 118 podiums. The 119th podium came on Loeb’s last 2020 outing with third place at last year’s Rally Turkey.

Loeb reshaped people’s thinking on what success in rallying meant. Early in the WRC’s 48-year history, it was Walter Röhrl’s two championships in three years. Then Juha Kankkunen became the first driver to successfully defend a title. The Finn furthered that by writing his own chapter in the history books as the first three-time, then four-time title winner.

Three years on and Kankkunen’s countryman Tommi Mäkinen delivered outstanding late 1990s dominance to win four on the bounce. Now that, we thought, was special. Now that, we thought, is a record which will stand for a very long time. That was 1999.

Mäkinen managed a decade before Finnish history was erased and written in French.

“This guy,” said Mäkinen at the time, “this guy is something special. Very special.” Tommi’s rarely a man of many words but he said it all with that brief description of the Alsace pilot who surpassed his own achievement.

Looking back, Fréquelin acknowledges that his star of the future set his course fair on the Italian coast that October, 20 years ago.

“I knew about Loeb,” said Fréquelin. “I knew from when he was competing in the [Saxo] Trophy. We were watching the young drivers coming through and we could see from this guy that there was something special. We started to help a little bit, not so much, just a little bit.

“Then we wanted him to drive in the WRC so he did Super 1600. He was winning all the time. As well as that, we were giving him the Xsara kit car to drive in French Championship. The results were the same, he was winning. It was a good idea to give him the Xsara WRC for Sanremo.”

Fréquelin would become much more than a team principal to Loeb. He was a mentor who offered guidance throughout his career and well beyond his own retirement from Citroën Racing in 2007.

“He is special as a driver,” he continued. “The way he drives the car is perfect, he doesn’t give the car stress, he keeps it all the time straight – he has real balance in the car.”

Guy Fréquelin (pictured right) was alongside Loeb throughout his career. Photo courtesy of Citroën Racing

Talk to Loeb about his inspiration and motivation and you get a slightly quizzical look. Like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Which it is. “I like to drive,” said Loeb. “I always enjoyed to drive.”

And as the years rolled by, that enjoyment of his time behind the wheel would be enough for Loeb to dazzle the world of Formula 1, Le Mans, touring cars, rallycross and, of course, there was that insane, record-shattering run up Pikes Peak in 2012.

But in the early days, Loeb had to find a way out of working as an electrician in Alsace. He did that with the help of friends who believed in him sufficiently to dig deep and fund a shot at the Citroën Saxo Trophy, which he won in 1999.

That win landed him on the radar of a man who would help shape the rest of his competitive career: Guy Fréquelin.

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Having driven at the highest level and finished second to Ari Vatanen in the 1981 world championship, Fréquelin had an insight into what it would take to succeed. As team principal at Citroën Racing, the man known as ‘Grizzly’ had an inkling he might have found the driver for the Versailles squad’s second serious shot at the WRC.

The less said about the first shot the better, it involved a BX 4TC and not a hint of success. It didn’t involve Fréquelin.

With the Saxo title under his belt, Loeb’s story is well known. He put some French Federation investment to good use with a pair of asphalt outings in a Toyota Corolla WRC, finishing ninth on his four-wheel drive debut at the 2000 Tour de Corse and followed that up with 10th in Sanremo shortly after. In 2001 he won the WRC’s Super 1600 title (the forerunner to the Junior WRC).

But it was in Sanremo, a year after that 10th place, that the stars aligned and Loeb truly lit up the championship. Driving a Xsara WRC for the first time at the highest level, he finished second on the 2001 Rallye Sanremo, missing out on victory to fellow Frenchman and Peugeot’s acknowledged asphalt uber-hero Gilles Panizzi by just 11.4sec.

Photo courtesy of Citroën Racing

Undoubtedly, some of that balance came from his prowess in gymnastics. Loeb’s athletic career began on the beam, the bars and the hoops. For his age, he was among the best in France. His capacity to translate that perfect physiological centre of gravity to four wheels would help define his driving style as one of the most economic and smoothest in history.

What also helped was his arrival into an era of World Rally Cars which were less demanding of a drivers’ experience of these cars. Active transmission offered the opportunity for drivers to run through a range of set-up options in next to no time, with engineers plugging in laptops to determine the level of throttle and steering inputs required to regulate how open or locked the differential would be at any given nanosecond.

For years before, drivers had been forced to run a test road for days on end. The team dropped hour after hour with transmission changes to fit a new front, centre or rear diff with a different ramp angle offering a completely new feel to the car from corner to corner.

Now, the technicians weren’t required to get their hands dirty – the mapping of the differentials was all done from the comfort of the team’s command centre.

Loeb offers a look into his past life, as a successful age-grade gymnast

There’s little doubt that the Loeb-Fréquelin axis steered the French firm for years, ably assisted by such engineering brilliance as Jean-Claude Vaucard, the man responsible for the Xsara. But Loeb did it his way.

As the years passed and the title tally built, so did Loeb’s apparent heir of laissez-faire. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He wasn’t a shouter or a driver who made mountains out of molehills, he just got on with it in his own way. Quietly. Efficiently.

Committed to testing and developing, Loeb’s run of nine championships spanned three separate Citroëns and one major homologation cycle change, when 1600cc B sector machinery replaced two-litre-engined C sector cars in 2011. And those nine titles frustrated no end of drivers.

Petter Solberg was the only man ever able to beat Loeb across a whole season. The Norwegian edged his French rival in 2003. From then on, Loeb was unbeaten – and unbeatable annually – until the end of 2012, when he quit the full-time WRC.

It was a story which was kept quiet at the time, but Citroën tried to secure Solberg for the 2005 season. The 2003 world champion wasn’t interested in being part of a French superteam.

“I wanted to beat him,” said Solberg. “And, don’t forget, we had a fantastic car with Subaru through 2004. I didn’t want to go to Citroën then, to be controlled and be part of the team with Loeb, I wanted to beat him from the outside. But he was just so consistent. Consistent and quick – that’s what he had.”

There’s no denying that theme of consistency. It’s the word Marcus Grönholm reaches for regularly and often when describing him.

“He was always there,” said the two-time champion. “Always, just taking the points, taking the win. He didn’t make mistakes. It was so frustrating. We would be going well, maybe leading a little bit then, bam, something was going wrong or I make a small mistake and he is in. Loeb is winning again! But also, he was also winning a lot on his own.

“He was incredible driver. Hey, he is still incredible driver.”

One Finn who saw it from the inside was Mikko Hirvonen, who shared the Citroën team with him in Loeb’s final full season, in 2012.

“Séb was the one everybody wanted to beat in that time,” said Hirvonen. “I know he was the one I wanted to beat. We came close [in 2009], but just not close enough.”

Close was one point. Nobody ran Loeb closer. That just makes the agony even worse for Mikko.

Unburdened by the preconceptions of the Group A era, Loeb dialled himself into a fully active World Rally Car incredibly quickly and immediately found his driving style suited the Xsara WRC. He drove the car with a touch of understeer, rather than an armful of oversteer and it was always on the racing line.

Loeb was something of a pioneer for these cars and this style – something which frustrated his 2003 team-mate Colin McRae. The Scot struggled to fully come to terms with the Xsara WRC in the same way he’d bossed Subarus and Fords for years before.

But that didn’t mean he wasn’t a big fan of Loeb’s. Heading into the twilight of his career, McRae was quick to point to the diminutive Alsatian as the forbearer for the new generation of drivers.

By the time those regulations changed at the end of 2005, Loeb was already two titles in and more than ready for the switch back to mechanical differentials. Back to back crowns had placed Loeb’s feet very firmly under the table at Citroën Racing’s Satory factory and he had the team totally under his command.

Having learned plenty from McRae and Carlos Sainz in his early years with the team, Loeb’s control of Citroën was obvious when François Duval arrived in 2005, keen to demonstrate that there was an alternative superstar sitting just the other side of the Belgian border. It didn’t work out like that. Duval rarely came close to Loeb’s speed and departed the team after a troubled single season.

Dani Sordo, who drove alongside Loeb in the factory team for four years from 2007, would be a more compliant team-mate.

Was Loeb lucky? That was always a claim he had to put up with. ‘Lucky Loeb’ wins again.

Vaucard’s replacement at the top of Citroën’s technical tree Xavier Mestelan Pinon dispelled such talk quickly.

“When we get to the end of rallies we would look at the cars and rebuild them,” he said. “There was never any damage to Sébastien’s car. Not on the sills, nowhere. It’s not how he drives. He drives with the car on the road, not taking to the ditch, not to risk the puncture.”

This goes back to Loeb’s straight style. He didn’t put the car where he wasn’t sure it should go – and if you’re not in the ditches then you’re not risking punctures or worse.

Another demonstration of Loeb’s standing in Citroën came when Frequelin’s successor as team principal Olivier Quesnel was left in the awkward position of dealing with master and pupil.

When Sébastien Ogier started the 2011 season, he started it as a Citroën driver chasing the drivers’ championship. And when he let it be known that he was no pushover, a power struggle began in the team. Ultimately, there would be only one winner. Loeb stayed, Ogier left. 

With plenty of water having passed under the bridge, Ogier has plenty of respect for his rival.

“He was always so fast on every surface,” said the seven-time champion. “I think in some ways, some drivers were a little bit scared to fight with him. You had to give always 100% to try to beat him.”

Team-mates, and later rivals, Sébastien Ogier (right) is full of respect for his fellow Frenchman

What Loeb had through his career was an ability to drive a car at 99.9%. He could set his Citroën on a course and keep it there for days on end, with very little risk of anything going wrong. And the combination of his pace and the car beneath him meant 99.9% was enough to see off the best of the rest.

Every now and then, however, he needed to reach for that final tenth. When he beat Hirvonen to take his first ever Rally Finland win in 2008, Loeb admitted he’d had to go to a place he wasn’t keen on going back to. “I felt I had to drive above myself on that rally,” he said, “I didn’t like that so much.”

And driving above himself meant taking the sort of risks that, if they don’t pay off, can turn out to be pretty painful in a place like Jyäskylä. But they did. And the way Loeb was accepted by the Rally Finland masses 13 years ago was a demonstration of the great man’s standing in our sport.

He’s a bona fide legend. Always was, right from that cancelled first stage in Spain 22 years ago, and always will be.

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.

Photo courtesy of Citroën Racing

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