The all-conquering Frenchman


There is a saying in Finland that gets repeated at the eve of all major competitions, ‘the most important thing is not to beat your opponent, but to humiliate them’, so when a 20 km mountain stage record was shattered by 90 seconds two questions arose. What car, and who was the madman driving?

Peugeot recently decided to show all the privateers at Pikes Peak International Hill Climb just how fast the marque is by essentially taking their defunct Le Mans programme and shoving it inside a rally car. The result was the 208 T16 Pikes Peak, an 875bhp ‘car’ that accelerates faster than a F1 car, produces downforce and achieved the wet-dream of all mechanical engineers; the 1:1 power to weight ratio. The Red Bull backed pug climbed the 4 km mountain in 8 minutes and 13 seconds being the first car ever to complete the stage in less than 9 minutes. Whilst the reintroduction of the French make to Pikes Peak was worthy of increased media attention, the real reason why the world of motorsports followed this year’s event for more than just the videos of the poor bastards rolling down the mountain when they made a mistake was – rather ironically – for the one man least likely to crash during the race.

Peugeot persuaded Sebastien Loeb to pilot their hatchback-turned-rocket to win the race and guarantee media coverage. Sebastien Loeb, a man who needs little introduction and just about the only French man that can be classified ‘ice-cool’, destroyed the previous record fought over by so many with his usual panache. Loeb’s driving style matches his own character to a large extent, composed, direct and almost flawless. The on-board from the race shows him speeding past hundreds of spectators and the occasional wildlife constantly pushing, and serene throughout.

Post-race he talked about finding the balance in the car and learning to drive the beast: “In fact, before starting, I spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not to push to the maximum to get a really good record or whether or not just to push hard enough to get a result so that we could win. In the end, once I was in the car, I decided to push hard.”

Loeb returns to Rally France this October, but will it be his last outing in WRC?
Loeb returns to Rally France this October, but will it be his last outing in WRC?

The reason why Loeb was able to contest in Pikes Peak is due to his so called ‘retirement’ from WRC. After winning his 9th WRC title Loeb informed that in 2013 he will only contest in four WRC events and focus his efforts in sports car racing. He has won two of the three rallies he participated in and came second in one of them. His wins in Argentina and Monte Carlo, his second in Sweden and his most probable win in the forthcoming French Rally in October are nothing short of a tactical reminder to everyone that he is still king. All four rallies comprise of different surfaces, Monte Carlo is famous for the mix of dirt and snow, Sweden a full snow and ice rally, Argentina a hard-core gravel rally, and France a tarmac rally.

Currently Loeb is sixth in the Championship having contested in three of the eight rallies had. He cannot win the championship anymore, and that never was the stated objective of his retirement, but the message is still clear. If he wanted to, he could. Citroen has not forgotten his genius either. Having been troubled by poor performances throughout the season with Hirvonen and Sordo, and losing the spotlight to newcomer VW and Sebastien Ogier, Citroen Racing boss Yves Matton is eager to get Loeb to return things to normal. In an interview for he expressed his desire to Loeb to do a few more rallies.

“I haven’t spoken to him [Loeb] yet but for sure at the half of the season I will speak again with Sebastien to see if he has the motivation to do maybe one or two rallies more.”

Matton’s desperation is understandable, Citroen have underperformed the entire season. Dani Sordo just took his maiden victory for the team in Germany, but the team is still but a shadow of what they were with Loeb. Loeb’s commitments to sport car racing and the occasional privateer races means that a more structured approach to the 2014 season is unlikely. The world of rallying will now experience new champions and teams – although it seems that the current champion will also be called Sebastien – but it cannot ignore or forget Loeb. I love the way he has tailored the 2013 season, coming back to stir the pot whenever he feels like it, and demolishing records in different events throughout the world. If there is any man that doesn’t just beat his opponents, but humiliates them with his composure, grace and sheer brilliance behind the wheel it is Loeb.
Images: Wikicommons


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