A winner all the way

A winner all the way

Interview : Rallying is driving done through feeling, according to Sebastian Loeb, the nine-time world champion

A winner all the way

Sébastien Loeb is a French former rally racing driver who, from 2004 to 2012, won the World Rally Championship a record nine times with Citroën. Although he retired from the series in 2013, Loeb, 41, still spends much of his time racing in other series.

Before he discovered racing, Loeb, the son of a gymnastics teacher, was a top-level gymnast, winning the regional championships in his native Alsace four times and placing fifth in the French national championships. He is considered one of the most versatile racing drivers of all time, having raced in such diverse disciplines as sports cars, hill climb — he set the record for the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in the United States in 2013 on his first try, beating the previous record by a minute and a half — and even, as a teenager, motor scooters.

He founded his own sports car racing team, Sébastien Loeb Racing, which has raced in the FIA GT series and Porsche Supercup. He raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with the Pescarolo team, finishing second in the highest category in 2006. Loeb is now also driving in the World Touring Car Championship, of WTTC, with Citroën, finishing third last year after winning two races and scoring six podiums.

In 2009, he was close to signing to race in Formula One for a race or two, after he tested with the Toro Rosso team. At the Belgian Grand Prix last month, he took part in the Porsche Supercup support race and also spoke about his career, racing in general and Formula One in an interview. Excerpts:

With all of your racing experiences, do you regret not having raced in Formula One?
No, no regrets, because in any case it is a different discipline. I was not necessarily prepared for it. It’s not a regret, but it was mostly just a pleasure to test a Formula One car and to see what the sensations were like.

It’s true that compared to everything else that we know in cars, the sensations are very impressive in terms of the adherence, the aerodynamic downforce, the speed through the corners and braking: It goes very fast. On the other hand, I didn’t find it more difficult to drive than a GT. In fact, it’s almost less difficult, because while it’s true that you have to get used to the feel, and to the speed, in a pure driving sense it’s totally made for that.

So I found it practically less difficult than here, now, with the Porsche, which is all over the place, difficult, very delicate. But Formula One is another exercise, building confidence in the aerodynamics, etc.

Did you never tire of winning?

That’s not happening anymore. It’s more difficult now. In rallying it was good, and no, it’s not boring. On the contrary, it’s satisfying each time to win again. I was in a rhythm, it went well; you had to keep the motivation, but motivation for me came naturally.

Rallying is driving done through feeling, so it’s not as much by a process of work as on a circuit — so it was a discipline that was made for me. Then afterward, after nine titles, I said: “Well, is it still worth it? Is there not something else to do?” And that’s why I decided to quit rallying and try something else.

Neither of your parents had anything to do with racing and your family was not wealthy. How did you go from your humble background into racing?

I always liked speed, races, etc, without being a huge fan. I didn’t know rallying before I did it myself. On the other hand, I had started doing scooter races, in a French national championship, participating in two or three races and each time I was the fastest. It was races on either karting tracks or tracks set out on parking lots, with straw bales, and we drove with the knee on the ground, like on motorcycles. And then came cars at 18 years old.

Then I tried a thing called “Young Rallying” that you could join at the time for a €15 inscription. There were selections throughout France, each region did its selection, and the best of each region went into the finals, and the winner of the finals won a season in rally racing. It was open to the general public. I won the regional and then went into the nationals and did the best time of the nationals, but the jury decided that it was the second-placed driver who won. I was tricked, and didn’t win the season.

I went back the following year nevertheless because I had no other solution. I again won the regional section, and then got to the finals and in the finals I made an error. I was leading the finals and made a mistake in the last match. But there were some people who said to themselves if two years in a row I was ahead of 15,000 people in the selection process, it’s not just by accident. They were fans of car racing, and they contacted me and said, “Maybe we can do something together, etc., start you out in rallying…” They bought a small car and I started out with a small regional rally that I won in my category, and then it was promotional formulas, and I was there for three years. In the third year I won the Citroën Saxo Formula, which was the highest level.

You won on all surfaces in rallying. Is there a link between that kind of racing and circuit racing?

Circuits compared to rallies — there’s no comparison. In rallying you have to go through twice on a reconnaissance run and the copilot takes notes, based on what we say, and then later in the race it’s improvisation. When we arrive in the race, it’s the first time we get there at that speed. In circuit racing, everyone knows all the details down to the millimeter and it is necessary to succeed in lining up all of the details from one end to the other. Working on the setup of the car is very important, and it takes a completely different way of working, a different approach.

And your ambitions for the future as a driver?

I’m still trying to continue to evolve in WTCC, to progress, and we’ll see next year. Perhaps some day I’ll do the Dakar rally. It is something completely different again, but again something that I don’t know very much about. I did a little test with Peugeot not too long ago. It could be fun.

How do you see Formula One today, and some of the criticisms against it, like its new quiet engines?

I really like Formula One, whether it makes noise or not. It’s true that if you’re right beside them, it was magnificent the noise, and now it is no longer magnificent. But the most important thing is television with Formula One: If on the television it makes noise or not is not so important; the essential thing is if the races are interesting to watch. There was no overtaking during a certain period, so they did everything they could to make it so there was passing. And now there is passing; but it’s a little bit too easy — there is no attacking, there is no risk-taking. Or as soon as someone takes a little risk and they touch slightly, the incident goes to the race stewards. I have the impression that it went a little bit too much to the other extreme.

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