crankandpiston grabs a quick word with nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb to discuss his full-time GT racing career in the FIA GT Series and THAT assault on the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
I don’t mind admitting that I’m pretty nervous. It’s not everyday that you get to spend time with Sébastien Loeb, a World Rally Championship legend and the only man to have won the title since 2004. Indeed, since his full-time career in the WRC started back in 2003 (he made only nine starts in 2002), he has only lost the title once, and even then Subaru’s Petter Solberg bettered the Frenchman by only a single point.
Now, the temptation to grill Monsieur Loeb about his illustrious rally career and ask if his early gymnastic training was really worth it is enormous, but with only limited time available I have to stay focused. This year, for the first time in a decade, Loeb will make only four starts in the WRC, his main focus this year being the FIA GT Series and his first season as a full time circuit racer.
Having managed to grab fifteen minutes with the man himself as he prepares for the second round of the GT Series in Zolder, we discuss the decision to difficulties involved in switching from rallying to racing, the importance of an experienced teammate, his assault on the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb, why he’d like to give the 24 Hours of Le Mans another crack, and why an assault on the World Touring Car Championship with Citroen is just a stone’s throw away.
Sébastien, we’ll move onto the next step of your career in just a second, but I have to ask you this: nine World Rally Championships (that’s more than Tommi Mäkinen and Juha Kankkunen combined); 77 WRC victories; record number of consecutive victories on Rally Germany (eight, ’02-’10); and one of only two non-Scandinavians to win Rally Sweden (the other being current WRC Volkswagen driver Sébastien Ogier). Honestly, how much is the WRC going to miss you in 2013?
“Ah, that’s difficult to say. For sure, my name was very well known in the WRC, so for sure, some people are going to miss me. But there’s also a new generation of great drivers coming in, so…I don’t know. It’s not really up to me to answer!
“But I’m happy to have achieved this performance, of course. It was a great career, a lot of victories and a lot of fun. So for sure, I’m very happy to have achieved so much during my rally career.”
Let’s talk Pikes Peak. Peugeot has unveiled the 208 T16 you will compete in this June and revealed some pretty staggering specifics too. What inspired you to take on the event?
“Well I have good memories of the film with Ari Vatanen and Peugeot. It was an incredible video that I still have locked in my mind! I was thinking, ‘maybe one day it would be nice to go there with a good car’, and I had the opportunity this year with a top team – Peugeot – and Red Bull to go there with a top Peugeot car. It’s a professional team, so I’m confident we have a good car” – a quick run through the specs suggests Mr WRC is in with a pretty good shot at being crowned ‘King of the Peak’ in 2013 – “and I think we have an opportunity to do something great. It makes it a good challenge and very exciting, and I’m very happy to have this proposition and to go there.”
You mentioned Ari Vatanen there, who alongside Jeff Zwart is now synonymous with Pikes Peak. In fact the 1988 winner has already tipped you to set a new benchmark time on the climb. You’re a man who’s clearly used to pressure, but does that kind of validation make you a bit nervous?
“No. I will just try to prepare as well as possible and do the best I can. For sure, if I go with a car like this and a team like that, the goal will be to win. I will certainly try my best to do that.”
Pikes Peak isn’t the only headline you’ve made this year. Quite incredibly, in your first race in the FIA GT Series at Nogaro, you won. Realistically, did anybody at the team see that coming?
“Oh, we expected to be competitive. I know our car is quite good and my teammate – Alvaro Parente – is very good. From my side, I didn’t know what would be my level. I was hoping that I would be competitive, but I’m also here to learn. It’s not easy to be on the same level as the best GT drivers in the world(!), so I still have some things to learn. But I was very satisfied with the first result. I was not too far off the best laptimes and the car was getting better and better, so I was happy for the team that we were able to win this first race. It was even more than we had expected.
Granted things didn’t quite go to plan in the second race…
“No, the second race was a bit more complicated” – the team was penalised for a collision between Parente and the lead Belgian Club WRT Audi R8 LMS of Rene Rast – “but the performance was okay. We lost some time, and some points with that, but I’m still happy with the race because we were still competitive.”
Do you think there is pressure on the team to repeat this early win?
“[Laughs] At the moment, I know that I still have a lot of things to learn, so…I will not say there is a lot of pressure. I hope we will be able to do it again, sure, and we will work and try hard for that. But I’m still a beginner in this series, so I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself at the moment. We’ll just see how it goes.”
In the GT Series this year Sébastien Loeb Racing is running a pair of McLaren 12C GT3s, with Alvaro and yourself in the #9, and Andreas Zuber and Mike Parisy in the #10. Would you say that the McLaren is a runner you can easily push to the limit?
“I don’t know! [Laughs] For me the feeling is good in the car, but I don’t have a lot of experience in GT cars. But, yeah, I would say the feeling at the start was complicated, but now I feel much more comfortable and I can feel the reactions. I cannot really compare it to anything, but I think it’s a good car. For me at the moment, it’s difficult to go fast, then to be on the limit, and then to be consistent every lap, but these are the things you learn.”
Yes, the learning curve coming from well over a decade of competition on the rally stages to circuit racing must be almost vertical….
“For sure. I mean, in rallying the goal is to go as fast as possible, but that’s the same with circuit racing. I mean a rally car is easier to drive fast, for me, because I have a lot of experience in the WRC. The main thing is to adapt to a new car and also to the track, where you cannot make any mistakes. You have to be on the limit everywhere, and that’s something I need to concentrate on.
“In a rally you try to reach the limit. In racing, you NEED to be on the limit, because so many other drivers are already there. So it’s a different approach, but for sure my rally experience has taught me a lot. Now I need to learn new techniques. Now I have to be immediately fast for a qualifying lap: with the new tyres, you have only two laps before you start to lose the performance. To be immediately ready is a bit difficult for me at the moment, and also racing in the traffic with other cars is pretty new too!”