Loeb: The best driver in the world?

The Frenchman closes in on record fifth consecutive title and proves Finns ain't what they used to be
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The Independent Online

As befits any self-respecting adrenaline junkie, the world champion-elect Sébastien Loeb has spent part of his build-up to next weekend's Rally of Japan as a passenger with La Patrouille de France – the equivalent of the Red Arrows – streaking across the skies over Provence and the French Alps.

The Frenchman enters the penultimate rally of the season with a 14-point lead in the title race and needing just six points from Sapporo or the Wales Rally GB in December to clinch an unprecedented fifth crown, all the more remarkable for being achieved in consecutive years.

That would be territory far more uncharted than the rally stages the 34-year-old Loeb regularly negotiates, putting his faith as ever in the detailed notes of his co-driver, Daniel Elena, as he launches his Citroë*C4 over the next blind ridge.

Loeb is also within touching distance of a second record that will set him on an altogether different plane, elevated above every other champion to have claimed the drivers' title. His victory in rallying's greatest spiritualhome of Finland in August was probably a season-defining moment. The win, only the second there in 17 years by a non-Finnish driver and Loeb's first, checked the challenge of the then championship leader, Mikko Hirvonen.

It also gave Loeb, with a record tally of 46 career wins, renewed impetus to catch Hirvonen and, in the bigger picture, move clear of two famous flying Finns – Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Makinen – who both retired with four world titles.

In a sport where a momentary lapse of concentration can put the two-litre, four-wheel-drive C4 in a ditch, Loeb is taking nothing for granted, but cannot hide what it would mean to be out on his own. He said: "To win a fifth title would be incredible, it's what I am trying to do and what I have been working for.

"The two main records in the championship are the number of victories and the number of titles – and I'd have both. I am very proud of what I've achieved. But though records are nice, they will probably give me greater pleasure when I have retired. That is not why I am driving. It is because I like winning and I like the fight."

Loeb has spreadeagled the field in recent years to such an extent that the same murmurs that dogged Formula One's Michael Schumacher occasionally surface. In a nutshell, is his superiority removing a truly competitive element? Loeb, a fair judge and no fool, has spoken out before about the need for additional manufacturers to join the party, fully aware that, allied to his own talent, Citroën's reliability and budget are factors behind his success. He said: "That is the problem comparing yourself to drivers who drove in the past, or even now. If the comparison is not direct, the comparison is not accurate. Since 2003, I have had a good and reliable car, a car that could win rallies. I'm sure some other drivers in the past were very good but weren't given that same opportunity to have a good car. I hope that I am a good driver, but also a cool and normalguy. That's what I try to be."

It seems almost inconceivable that Loeb will not close out Hirvonen this year – and there is little immediate hope of any respite for the rest. He said: "I am still very motivated and next season I will continue. I have a contract for 2009 with Citroën. After that, I'm not sure – one day if I can find another challenge I'd be interested in doing something new. I have achieved what I want to achieve, what is happening now is only a bonus."

It is those last comments, in particular, that will have the Finns choking on their reindeer burgers. Loeb has won 10 of the 13 rallies contested this season, including the past five, to leave him on the verge of yet more history. Some bonus.