Loeb – Yes or No?

While we were at the Otterburn military ranges for the Cheviot Keith Knox Stages recently, there was another rally going on in Wales. The route was only a little less compact than that of the Keith Knox, the entry list was about the same size and the guy seeded at number one won that rally too. The only difference was, this rally was the last round of the World Rally Championship, and the guys that won were Sebastein Loeb and Daniel Elena. Oh, and they wrapped up their sixth world championship in a row while they were at it too.

If truth be told, more than anything else I feel sorry for Sebastien Loeb. What the guy has accomplished is nothing short of phenomenal, and yet not that many people within rallying, let alone out in the big bad world, actually seem to care. He’s got nobody to beat. He’s in the best car. It’s boring because he always wins. It’s almost as if clinching one championship, decided on the final round when five or six guys who had been trading fastest times throughout the year all started with a chance of winning it, would have done more to boost Loeb’s status.

You know what? I think Sebastien Loeb is the greatest driver in the history of rallying. Before you start pelting me with rotten tomatoes, though, let’s look at each of the claims I made above in turn. First, the idea that he’s got nobody to beat. As pithy as it might sound, he can only beat what’s put in front of him. To my mind, the fact that manufacturers have been dropping by the wayside over recent years should not in any way take away from what Loeb has achieved. Wider economic events are in no way his fault – unless you want to blame Sebastien Loeb for the entirety of the global economic crisis – and so to discount Loeb as a contender for the title of Greatest Rally Driver Ever on account of the fact the opposition field has shrunk during his career is at base grossly unfair.

Furthermore, wind the clock back a few years and you find a different story. It really, really pains me to write this because Colin McRae is my all-time hero, but at Citroen Sebastien simply blew him away. And then when Colin was called in to Kronos to deputise for the injured Loeb, he wasn’t able to get anywhere near the pace the Frenchman had been setting in a one year-old car. It wasn’t just McRae he beat on a level playing field, though. The other Citroen driver at the time was Carlos Sainz, a man who was still regularly running at the head of the field right up until 2004 and had two world championships to his name – and yet Loeb comfortably had the measure of him too.

One could argue that Sainz and McRae were of an older generation to the six-time World Champion and thus getting on a bit by the time they encountered him, but there were more contenders who fell short of Loeb. Petter Solberg had the measure of him in 2003, but let’s not forget that the title race went right down to the wire and the Frenchman was on strict orders to back off and secure the manufacturers’ title for Citroen. Since then, the Norwegian hasn’t been able to come close to Loeb – not even when issued with a Citroen C4 WRC for the final round of this year’s championship. Marcus Gronholm – a man with two world titles to his name – wasn’t able to get the better of the man who has 54 rally wins to his name either, not even when equipped with the all-singing, all-dancing Ford Focus WRC. Put simply, Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena have had the measure of every single crew they’ve come up against – and they can’t really be expected to do any more than that, can they?

Now, onto that claim about the car. Yes, I am willing to concede that the Citroen C4 WRC has parallels to the reproductive sections of a male dog’s anatomy, but I’m not convinced it’s as all-conquering as we are led to believe. If it really is a vastly superior car to anything else out there, then why aren’t Petter Solberg, Dani Sordo, Evgeniy Novikov, Conrad Rautenbach and Chris Atkinson all mashing the Ford Focuses on a regular basis? Loeb may be all-conquering behind the wheel of a Citroen, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a brilliant car. Hirvonen and Latvala have been more than able to match the red-and-blue machines for pace on the stages, and pound-for-pound I really don’t think there’s a lot that separates the Focus from the C4.

Time and time again I’m told that the WRC is boring because Loeb Always Wins. Yes, it may be true that he does have a very impressive wins to starts ratio, but to argue that the former gymnast can’t be the greatest ever because he ‘made the sport boring’ is an utterly ludicrous claim to make. To explain, may I draw your attention to Formula 1, circa 2004? Or perhaps the world’s major golfing championships around the year 2005? Or even mens’ Grand Slam tennis over the last three seasons? Using the logic that the World Rally Championship is meaningless because one crew nearly always come out on top is to say that Michael Schumacher, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer can’t be considered masters of their sports because nobody else was up to challenging them.

Okay, I hear you protest that there are far fewer manufacturers in rallying now then there were previously, that there are fewer people that Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena have to beat. If they wasn’t there, though, then we would have Hirvonen, Latvala and Sordo duking it out rally after rally, everyone would be raving about how exciting it was and people might want to be part of the top flight of rally driving again. I’m not trying to say that the current lack of interest in the WRC is solely due to Sebastien Loeb’s dominance, rather that he is so good that he makes the competition look pedestrian by comparison. Anyway, back in the day when there were seven or eight works teams coming out to rally round after round, how many drivers were seriously able to challenge for wins? I reckon five, which conveniently is the same number of guys in with a good chance of winning at the start of a current WRC round. So the competition is there for Loeb, but I believe he just happens to make it look pedestrian.

In sum, then, just because the WRC has got smaller doesn’t mean its got slower. We will quite simply never get the chance to see how Sebastien Loeb would have measured up against the likes of Vatanen, Mikkola and Waldegard, but you know what? I think he would have had the measure of them. Anyone who can win on any surface and drive so close to the limit for so long with only a handful of accidents would have fitted in well in the long, tough rallies of the past, so I have every confidence that Loeb wouldn’t have floundered on the stages were he born twenty years previous.

So what can the flying Frenchman do to convince those doubting Thomases who seem to think there’s more skill involved in driving a Mark 2 Escort round some cones and bales than piloting a modern WRC? It would be nice to see him having a bash in something other than a Citroen, a la Valentino Rossi with his move to Yamaha in MotoGP (his pace in F1 and Le Mans cars suggests he’s pretty adaptable). It would also be terrific to see the international rally community reunited and have all of the world’s best drivers taking each other on on a level playing field, be it 1600 turbo, Super 2000 or whatever. Until either of those things happen, though, I recommend you sit back, relax and watch a little more history being made every time Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena climb in a rally car.

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