The history of the World Rally Championship is certainly marked by the indelible imprint of a few sacred monsters, such as Jean Ragnotti, Walter Rohrl, Michèle Mouton, Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae, Tommi Makinen and Juha Kankkunen. But it is a French pilot who is closest to the stars. His name is Sebastien Loeb. As a world champion, he broke the world record for all disciplines. Even Michael Schumacher, the «Red Baron », bowed tohim in this exercise. And yet, the one called “the boss” was not meant to make a career in motorsport, but rather in the building industry. It is his innate talent and passion for speed that will open for him the doors of the rally, a discipline that he suberbly dominated. Best of all, Loeb will also stand out in the mythical race of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, by winning a second place at his first participation. Sponding to the call of the circuit race sirens, the French driver will eventually swap his status as a rally driver against a WTCC bucket. And once again, his exceptional driving qualities will allow him to make sparks, from the start. In this exclusive interview given to Gentlemen Drivers magazine, Sebastien Loeb retraces his career from the very beginning. An exciting story, enamelled with crisp anecdotes, which testify to the great passion of this exceptional driver.
Your first time behind the wheel?
I was then about 5 years old, climbing into my parents 2 CV, parked in my grandmother’s yard. I removed the speed, the car went down the yard, ended up in a staircase. After that, I rode, seated on my father’s lap and then alone when I was 13 and could reach the pedals. I was so obsessed by cars that the license was the only exam I was interested in! I passed it as fast as I could, as soon as I got the legal age.
Which was your first car?
The Skoda of my parents. With me, the engine did not last long … (laughs). I dreamed of having a Renault 5 GT Turbo. To get money quickly, I left high school. I wanted concrete and therefore I got my diploma as an electrician in the building industry. As soon as I started in the workforce, I put all of my income in the object of my dreams: a Super 5 GT Turbo. The tires agonized after 2,500 km and my license was more often at the department than in my pocket! My learning of piloting thus began and revealed innate qualities. I enjoyed torturing some GTI before coming across an announcement showing the detection operation “Rallye Jeunes”.
Yet I was not meant for rally driving, but rather for gymnastics, which I practiced at a very high level. As proof, I was four times champion of Alsace, Champion of the Grand East and ranked in tenth place in the championships of France.
Tell us about your competitive debut?
In 1995, I was 21 years old and I demptied my piggy bank to find the 100 francs necessary for the registration to the “Rallye Jeunes”. In 1997, I acceded for the second time to the final. I dominated this final a first time, b but I was not selected. I reproduced the same performance the following year and there, somebody noticed me, thinking that this was the second time that this young driver managed to be before 15,000 participants, and that could not be just a coincidence, and that must be something special about it. That person was Dominique Heintz, who is now director of Sebastien Loeb Racing, the team I created. It was he who allowed me to start rallying, at a regional level at the beginning, the Promotion formula …. Subsequently, I won the Citroën Saxo Trophy Kit-Car in 1999, which attracted the attention of Guy Fréquelin, the maanager of Citroën Sport, who will then become the guide of my career. In 2001, I demonstrated my potential by finishing second in the San Remo Rally, in a one-off participation at the wheel of an official Xsara WRC. I joined Citroën full-time in the 2002 season. I got my first victory the same year at the Rally of Germany, before missing the title by a single point in 2003, despite three successes.
What are the other highlights of your rally career?
In 2004, six victories allowed me to start my series of world titles. The following year, I became the first driver to win ten rallies in one season, becoming double world champion. With a private Xsara from the Kronos team, I got a third title in 2006, missing three rounds after breaking my shoulder during a motorcycle fall.
1974: birth in Haguenau in the Bas-Rhin in Alsace (France)
1995: participates in Operation Volant Rallye Jeunes
2001: wins the French championship of rallies, as well as the World Junior championship
2003: WRC debuts first full season
2004-2013: wins nine world titles in WRC
2006: second place in the 24 hours of Le Mans with Pescarolo Sport.
2011: creates his own team, Sebastien Loeb Racing
2013: Stop his career as a rallyman
2014: enters World Championship WTCC
Sébastien Loeb in figures:
9: The number of world titles in WRC
900: The number of specials won in the WRC
1: In 2006 and 2009, Sébastien Loeb won the world title with a point
Ahead of Grönholm and Hirvonen
73.33%: In percentage, the ratio of victories over the 2008 season
(11 victories in 15 rallies)
1 of 1: Loeb won 50% of the rallies in which he participated.
78: The number of wins in WRC
23: The number of different rallies on which Loeb imposed himself
8: The number of victories following the rallies of Germany and Catalonia
28: The number of consecutive rallies completed in points
21: The number of rallies he has not completed (out of 168 entries)
85: The record of distance in meters of his jump on a special at the rally
Back with the official Citroën Sport team in 2007, I won a fourth crown at the wheel of the new C4 WRC, before adding a fifth title to my collection, thanks to an exceptional vintage with 11 wins. My title in 2009 was more difficult. Despite a perfect start of the season with five victories in as many rallies, I knew a series of bad luck, but I finally won the title with a point ahead against my rival Mikko Hirvonen. In 2010, I again took the lead with eight new victories, and I concluded by gleaning two additional titles in 2011 and 2012.
In the 15 years of your career, what are the victories that have most marked you?
The first title in 2004, which gave me tremendous confidence in my potential. But there is especially the title won in 2010 and that I won since the rally of Alsace. I was very moved to approach the last straight that is close to my place of birth. Then there was the pleasure of sharing the victory with family and friends.
When did you actually get most scared in your rallyman career?
In fact, we do not have time to be afraid. It is by thinking in advance that one can be invaded by fear. When we lose control of the car, or we get a little frightened, but we catch up with the car, the accident happens, but we do not even have five seconds to realize it.
Are you aware of being the legend that marked the WRC?
I am aware of having marked the rally by the nine titles acquired with Daniel Elena. Starting from there, to talk about a legend, well, I do not know …
What did it make you to be elected favorite sportsman of the French four years in a row?
It was an honor for me. It always seems a bit incredible, surprising in a sense. I never tried to change behavior to please anybody. If people like me, then I am very honored.
Did your passage in WTCC make you lose your rally driver reflexes?
Since my end of the rally competition, I have devoted myself to circuit racing and have already won several victories in the World Touring Car Championship. This turn does not mean that my skills in rallying have faded. In November, I won the Var rally with my wife Séverine in place of the co-driver. Participating and winning the Rallye du Var last year was of course a good preparation for Monte Carlo. We do it once a year, to have some fun.
Do you regret having stopped the rally?
I do not regret having stopped, because I am well aware of having achieved quite a few records in this field. I am proud of my career and I’m still able to live my passion, whether in rally or circuit.
What motivated you to participate in the Monte Carlo Rally in 2015?
Citroën asked me if I wanted to participate in the Monte-Carlo Rally and I thought : Why not? I have very good memories of this rally. I won for the first time at the Monte Carlo WRC Rally in 2002, although I was then demoted to second place after a tire change that was deemed illegal. In total, I won seven victories in Monaco.
You who have won everything on the WRC circuit, has this brought anything more to you?
Rest … and then different sensations! Even if the Monte-Carlo did not go very well with this error that broke the suspension of my DS3 WRC, we had a great time with my co-pilot Daniel, and I was able to recharge my batteries. There are often criticisms of the lack of rally promoters and advertisers.
How do you see the future of the discipline?
There are ups and downs. In the rally, we had a period when the car makers were leaving. There was the return of Volkswagen and the presence of Ford and Citroën. It is true that there are not many manufacturers engaged, but it is not by not having promoters and no spin-offs, that we will encourage other manufacturers to take an interest in the discipline . It is actually a vicious circle. I think there needs to be more media involvement, especially if it’s a spectacular sport, if it’s being broadcast. From there, I think the constructs
You made a passage through the 24 hours of Le Mans. Why ?
I always liked to discover something else and that’s why I’m in WTCC now. It is true that the rally is my first passion and on the level of piloting it is more varied, but I always liked the circuit racing.
You made a second place with Pescarolo in 2006. Does that mean you can achieve good results if you try again?
Perhaps, but the WTCC is much sharper. These are very short sprint races. One is always at the limit and the slightest error does not forgive. At Le Mans, it depends on the years, but sometimes you can afford to turn one or two seconds less quickly. So it was this quest for perfection in WTCC that tipped my balance in favor of this discipline. Le Mans is a long-term goal for the team, but we want to do it in good conditions and to do that, we have to get the budget right.
Why did not you try to make Formula One?
Just because I did the Youth Rally. If I had made the Youth Tour, I would have turned to F1. Fate has made my course in rally. I tried my luck in F1 with the Red Bull team in 2009 and it took me a bit to be retained, because my performance was valid during the tests. But my rally season was getting more complicated. I lost the lead I had and I was forced to concentrate 100% on the championship.
In addition, entering F1 was very complicated, because of the super license and the impossibility of testing. I did not have enough circuit experience. Everything was complicated. At one point, it was meant to participate in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but the FIA did not give me a license. To have the super license, you must either have an experience in F1 or have won a national championship in F2 or an international championship in F3, or be justified by a minimum number of kilometers in tests. This last possibility is no longer on the agenda, because the FIA has banned the tests in F1.
At the age of 40, why did you go from the rally to the circuit?
I chose to continue my career on the circuit, because I wanted to try something else in pilotage. It’s a different approach than the one to the rally, so it’s harder for me. It is a challenge that I launch and I must relearn to drive with new techniques. I had been rallying for more than 10 years. For me, it is clearly a new start in motorsport.
You were brilliant in Pau, at the wheel of a Porsche CUP. What attracts you to this championship ?
It is a discipline that I appreciate and that allows young people to reveal themselves. And since I do not have time to prepare my races or to make trest drives, I participate from time to time for pleasure, while not being obliged to constrain myself to the necessity to make adjustments on the car.
What feelings did you have when flying the 208 T16 Pikes Peak?
It is truly a very special feeling and an exceptional moment. The 208 embodies the strength of a Le Mans car, with accelerations faster than a Formula 1. It just emerges from the bend that it already discharges like a cannonball. The traction is amazing! With so much work and investment in this preparation, the error was forbidden, it was 20 km of risk taking.
How important is this victory among all the exploits of your career?
I would not say it’s the equivalent of a rally victory, but it’s very important. I used to watch the Pikes Peak race before and I was already thinking it would be nice to do it one day, and I did it by breaking the record of the event. For me, it was the race of the year. Of all the cars I drove that year, it’s definitely the coolest. We set a good record, I think it will be hard to beat.
Was it easy for you to get used to the Peugeot 208 T16 Pikes Peak?
I would say yes, but before the preparation of the car, I had some apprehensions about its phenomenal power. I was wondering if this car would not be too powerful for me and if I would find the same comfort as with my rally car. After all, this is 875 horsepower and the most powerful car I have ever driven. But in the end, I was very comfortable with the car and I was able to fully exploit its potential.
How did the transition to the WTCC take place?
My biggest challenge was understanding the car and driving in WTCC. It took me a time of adaptation to master the specificities of the circuit
Is there a difference in leadership between the two disciplines?
Mastering the car and braking later is part of a common basis. In circuit, it is “repetitive”. Once you have reached the limits, you have to be able to set your bearings to stay at the same stage all the time. In rally, you never really reach the limits. But it takes more improvisation. Anyone with more feeling can make a difference.
What are the gaps that have handicapped you most in this discipline?
Place your car well, know how to “read” the platoon, and identify the appropriate places where you can attack. This is not so obvious.
Is it difficult to shift from pilot to team manager?
It’s a projection in the retirement phase. It is very difficult for a driver to stop running, but it is much less so when he remains at the end of his career as a motor racing driver as a team boss. Leading a team means discovering the race in a new light. The possibility of transmitting my experience and sharing my passion with young people or gentlemen drivers, are also two important things in my eyes.
Are you a car collector?
Not really. But I have a C4 WRC, with which I won the title of world champion in 2010. This is the only racing car I have. I am a fan of sports cars, especially Italian ones. I had Lamborghini (Gallardo, Aventador …), Ferrari … .. But I do not keep anything in my garage because I often change cars. I like to ride in supercar, even if I do not have the same sensations that I have in rally or circuit.
How do you relate to the car on a daily basis?
Generally, I ride very little. For long distances, I use a lot planes or helicopters. I take my car to drive my daughter to school, go drink my coffee, go to the airport.
Do you enjoy driving?
No. I get bored. In fact, compared to the sensations of the competition whether in rally or circuit, driving every day is a chore.
In everyday life, which kind of driver are you?
In town, I am cautious, because there are pedestrians. But on small roads, it can happen that I drive a little faster.