Loeb driven to rediscover the winning formula

While the five-times champion's dominance led to an invitation to join F1, his title defence has stalled this year. James Corrigan meets a man geared up to finish on top in this weekend's decider
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The Independent Online

Refusing a five-times world rally champion a Formula One driving licence on the grounds of his inexperience behind the wheel just might, on the face of it, seem akin to declining Tiger Woods membership of the Ramblers Association because he has not walked enough on grass. But Sébastien Loeb is not bitter and neither is he too bothered. After all, he has a sixth consecutive title to set his sights on in the Rally of Great Britain starting in Wales today.

The Frenchman understands why the ruling body, the FIA, chose to place safety above any financial and marketing considerations when denying him the chance to compete in the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday week. "For sure it would have been great, but it was not meant to be," Loeb said. "I didn't meet the conditions set out in the regulations – I am too inexperienced in F1.

"Yes, I have done testing, but, in truth, I could not see how they could grant me a super licence. Physically it would have been very difficult for me and it would have been clearly impossible for me to get a result. However, it would have been fun."

Loeb figures this was "a one-off opportunity". At 35, he knows time is not with him and neither are the odds. "My participation would not have got in the way of either championship this year as [Jenson] Button won his title last weekend and the WRC title is up for stake this weekend," he said. That is why Olivier Quesnel, the Citroën team director, was prepared to allow Loeb take up Red Bull's offer of a seat in their junior Toro Rosso team. In the frenzy of anticipation it was even suggested Loeb would switch full-time to Formula One next season. Not so, he says. "I have agreed to sign a two-year deal with Citroën," he revealed. "My priority has always been rallying."

The sport will be delighted to hear so. Loeb bestrides rallying like no other driver before and is, almost without dissent, hailed as "the greatest ever". In his own country he is positively A-list, as he explained when contrasting his fame in Wales. "Here in Cardiff I can go into a restaurant and it might be nobody would know me," he said. "In France that would not be possible. People often just stop in street and point. To be honest that is not something I enjoy, although I have learnt to accept it as a privilege. Last year, I was voted above all the footballers, above Thierry Henry even, as the biggest sports personality."

If that was honour enough then the recognition in receiving the Légion d'honneur, the highest distinction in France, from President Nicolas Sarkozy in May took him to a different level of exaltation. "I wouldn't have believed this could have happened to me, even a few years ago," he said. "I did not give up my job as an electrician until 10 years ago. It's been fast forward ever since."

Indeed, Loeb's reverse pedal has rarely been located in his staggering last decade of 53 WRC victories. But this year there have been setbacks which have threatened to put the brakes under his unprecedented era of dominance.

When he won the first five rallies of the season more silverware was considered as being on the inevitable side of a formality, but then Loeb suffered a five-race run of defeats during which he crashed in Sardinia and Greece. That gave Mikko Hirvonen and Ford their chance and the ever-improving Finn duly grasped it, building a lead over Mr Unleadable. Loeb ended his five-month drought when the WRC returned to his favoured tarmac in Spain three weeks ago but now he is back on the gravel of the Welsh forests playing catch-up, a point behind Hirvonen.

"Unless we both retire from the race it doesn't matter who's a point ahead or a point behind as one will still need to beat the other whatever," pointed out Loeb. "It's funny the media come up with all the reasons for what's happened this year but to my mind there's been no drop-off. In the past I have always considered myself lucky and perhaps this was payback. In one race I had a puncture which we couldn't work out as there was no hole and in another race I made a mistake – but then I make one every year.

"Certainly my drive to win is the same as it's always been, although when you are going for your sixth title it is bound to be different from the first. If I lost the title this time the impact wouldn't be that much; it's not going to change my life. Of course, that wasn't the case with my first title. Then it was the fulfilment of a dream and meant everything to me – the consequences seemed huge. That is why the pressure is on Mikko. It could be decided by the odd second and I am counting on my experience. I have had this title since 2004. I don't want to let it go."

Loeb and flow: Champion's rise to the top

Born: 26 February 1974, Haguenau, Bas Rhin.

Married: Wife Séverine, one daughter (Valentine).

Years in rally championship: 1999 to present.

Teams: Citroën, Kronos Total Citroën

Rallies: 123 (53 wins, 80 podiums, 633 stage wins, 763 points).

First rally: Catalonia 1999.

First win: Germany 2002.

Championships: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008.

* He won the Junior World Rally Championship in 2001.

* Participated in the Le Mans 24-hour race in 2005 and 2006, and won at the Race of Champions in 2003, 2005 and 2008.

* Made knight of the Légion d'honneur in 2009.

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