A middle-aged retiree just won the most famous rally in the world with a math teacher as his co-driver. What an extraordinary time to be alive and be able to witness such a thing.
I know the World Rally Championship began two weeks ago, so this may seem like old news, but bear with me. Besides, this is less about the championship in general and more about one man in particular. And, at 47 years old, he is always fresh news, believe me.
For those of you who did not pay much attention to the inaugural event of the World Rally Championship, the Rally Monte Carlo, along with the Monaco Grand Prix, the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Indy 500 and the Dakar Rally, one of the world’s five most famous motorsport events, I will tell you this: it was one of the greatest races I have ever seen.
The World Rally Championship has entered a new hybrid era in 2022, with new cars and regulations and a search for sustainability that is absolutely pivotal in keeping it relevant.
The cars, now called Rally 1, have replaced the former WRC cars, that had been the official contenders since 1997. A change of this magnitude had not been seen since 1987, when Group A cars replaced Group B machinery, after the latter had been deemed too fast and too dangerous following a series of high-profile accidents and tragic deaths.
The Rally 1 cars take the engine from last year’s and add a hybrid module capable of adding 135 horsepower and the ability to propel the car in EV mode between stages, when drivers hit the public roads. They also add weight and a lot of complexity, so 2022 will be a learning year for the three manufacturers involved: Toyota, Hyundai and Ford.
So, what about the drivers? Well, in the last 18 years of the World Rally Championship, two Frenchmen called Sébastien, one Loeb, one Ogier, took home 17 titles between them. Loeb won nine championships on the trot with Citroën from 2004 to 2012, whereas Ogier picked up the baton and duly took another eight with three different constructors: Volkswagen, Ford and Toyota.
Since that first Loeb win, only one man was able to beat the Sébastiens – Ott Tänak deservedly won in 2019.
Now, Ogier promised his family 2021 would be his last year as a full-time driver and, after managing to clinch the title last year, he will be appearing only on selected events of his own choosing with Toyota in 2022.
Meanwhile, since leaving the world rally championship, Loeb has tried pretty much everything: he drove GT cars, competed in the World Touring Car Championship, World Rallycross Championship, set a world record at the Pikes Peak climbing event, joined the new Extreme E Championship and has been a fixture on the Dakar for six years now.
It is very hard to say who is the best man – or woman – ever in a particular sport. Sometimes there is some consensus – in names like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods – but most people say different characters from different eras cannot be compared.
I tend to agree with that. But it is undeniable that both Sébastiens are two of the most talented people ever to grace a rally car. And if one of them is to be called the greatest in his craft, to me, it has to be Sébastien Loeb.
Two weeks ago, for the one thousandth time in his career, Loeb got me in front of the television, biting my nails, rooting for him as if that would have any impact on his or my life whatsoever. It certainly wouldn’t. But it is a reminder that some people are born with something special and that when they find they have it in them, and they put it to use, they may bring joy to all of us. And that’s what Mr Loeb brought me for the four days he ran the Monte Carlo rally. Joy. Lots of it.
Ogier, the man who replaced Loeb at the top a decade before, let’s not forget, is still the reigning champion. He was driving a new car, yes, but in a team he knows inside out and with whom he has won the last two championships.
Loeb had finished the Dakar rally four days before, placing second, and arrived at Monaco a month shy of his 48th birthday. He had driven the Rally 1 Puma before but had not been an integral part of the car’s development as Ogier certainly was for the Toyota.
In fact, everyone thought Loeb in the Ford was more of a clever marketing stunt than a bid for any significant result. Not being a full-time Ford driver, his result would not even count for Ford’s world championship hopes.
But who exactly is this middle-aged man? Before even dreaming he would be a rally champion, the young Loeb was a gymnast. And a pretty good one too: he was a four-time Alsatian champion. Gymnastics didn’t pay the bills though and Loeb signed up as an apprentice at an electrical goods company called Socalec.
Among his friends, Sébastien was widely seen as a crazy man at the wheel, always driving flat-out and doing things with cars they could not believe. His passion for driving made him scrap every cent he could in order to try to be a racing driver.
Well, I don’t have enough space here to tell you all the steps he took, but get this: 1. he won the first rally he ever contested as an amateur; 2. he got sponsored by former French champion Didier Auriol and entered two rounds of the world championship in 2000 – San Remo and Corsica, finishing in the Top 10 in both.
In 2001, Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena contested the French national championship and the Super 1600 category that followed the WRC. They won both. The following year, he contested seven world championship events with Citroën and won his first in Rally Germany.
Finally, 2003 was the first year with Loeb as a full-time Citroën driver in the world championship. He lost the title to Petter Solberg by one point. One single point in his first year contesting the full championship. And the rest is history. From 2004 to 2012, he was untouchable, displaying a level that no one in history had ever displayed before and will likely never display again. Not even Ogier.
His achievements at the wheel of a rally car are absolutely unique. I will try to list them all: 1. Most world titles (9); 2. Most rally wins (80); 3. Most podium finishes (119); 4. Most stage wins. From 2005 to 2012, he won every tarmac rally he contested bar three events and he is the only man to have won a world rally in three different decades.
Apart from the WRC, Loeb has placed second at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2006, he won first time out at the X Games in 2012 and set the world record for a petrol-engined car at Pikes Peak in 2013. Look it up on YouTube and try not to close your eyes as the Frenchman plays with death at time-warp speeds up the American mountain.
Six years after retiring from rallying, Loeb drove a Citroën C3 WRC to victory at the Catalunya Rally, his ninth win in a rally he contested … nine times. At 44 years old, even he confessed he never thought he would win a rally again. It was Citroën’s 99th and last rally win – 79 at the hands of Loeb.
Fast forward three and a half years and Loeb was once more at the start of the Rally Monte Carlo, a race he had won seven times before. By his side, he had not his co-driver of all time Daniel Elena, but an old friend called Isabelle Galmiche, a 50-year-old math teacher who was a part of Loeb’s team at Citroën many years ago, co-driving with him in some development test routes. Isabelle had never contested a world rally in a top-flight car.
So, despite everything being new in the WRC this year, the two Sébastiens put the young guns to shame and set up an epic battle that will live in rally history forever. They just flew away from everyone else and, come the last special stage of the rally, after four days of snow, ice and dry tarmac, these two racing legends found themselves within 9.5 seconds of each other with 14km to go. Loeb first, Ogier second. Craig Breen was third more than one and a half minutes adrift.
Loeb would be the last to contest the stage and, as he tackled the twists and turns of the mountains above Monaco, I was screaming at the television like I had not done in ages, marvelling at this man’s ability to do what he was doing, so many years after his prime. The Puma was dancing, and I had tears in my eyes.
In the end, Loeb lost nine seconds to Ogier in the stage, meaning he won the rally by 0.5 seconds. Zero. Point. Five. Seconds. At the finish, his wife was there.
As he got out of the car, still not knowing the end result, he simply asked her: ‘C’est bon?’ She said ‘Oui’. And the celebrations began.
So, on a sunny Sunday morning, 19 years after he first won at Monte Carlo, Sébastien Loeb added another record to his unique tally: he became the oldest rally winner in the history of the championship. He also gave his friend Isabelle – who was just as brilliant – the honour of becoming the first woman to win a world rally in precisely a quarter of a century. What a great Monday she must have had with her students the following day.
I know we cannot compare drivers of different eras because the cars are different, and the rules are different and the circumstances are different. But I don’t care: Sébastien Loeb is the greatest rally driver of all time and although I probably won’t be buying a Ford Puma anytime soon, I am sure displaying a 1/43 scale model of his #19 car on my desk, so I can look back on January 23, 2022, and remember what it is I love about motor racing, cars, engines, petrol and the lot.
Thank you for that, Mr Loeb.
By Guilherme Marques