You need not be a motorsport fan to appreciate that Sébastien Loeb is an exceptional athlete. It’s enough to watch the 41- year-old Frenchman at work; you can’t help but be amazed. He creates these very special Sébastien Loeb moments – moments of supreme precision that only he can pull off. These snapshots are more impressive than the nine World Rally Championship wins, the podium finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the World Touring Car Championship wins, the incredible times he recorded while testing a Formula One car, and the track record at the legendary Pikes Peak Hill Climb in Colorado, USA, where he even beat the best theoretical time as calculated by Peugeot’s computer.
The tougher the job at hand, the more precise is Loeb’s work. Where his rivals plan meticulously, Loeb plans down to the millimetre. The penultimate turn in his record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013 was just such a moment. Having covered 19.5km of the 20km course, you hit the penultimate of the 156 turns, a triple right-hander…
“And when you’re going at 150kph and there are no crash barriers,” says Loeb, “it’s a place where you really can’t afford to make a mistake.”
None of the other drivers took the turn-in point, at an altitude of some 4,300m, blind. Most were happy just to have survived and somehow wobbled their way through the section. But while they tried and came away with little to show for their efforts, Loeb’s front wheel touched the white line demarcating the edge of the track. Total perfection… but how?
What do you see when you think of that turn?
“Two bumps in the road surface, which made things even trickier.”
Does that mean you see turns three-dimensionally?
“I don’t even know if I really see them. When I’m in the car, I retrieve data that I’ve saved while inspecting the track, or from practice runs.”
So, do you know all the racing tracks by heart?
“With track circuits, that’s certainly the case. I also learnt Pikes Peak by heart. And I’ve probably also got some of the rallies off pat, especially the ones where the landscape changes. I go by crests of hills, trees, rivers. I’ve never found that any trouble.”
Could you theoretically drive blind?
“I already have.”
“The lights on my car were incredibly bad during one night stage on the Wales Rally. One headlamp was pointing at the sky and the other to the side. It was raining and foggy. The conditions were awful, so I turned off the lights and drove to the end of the special stage in the dark.”
You were flying along completely blind?
“It’s better to have no light than bad light. The moonlight gave me a rough outline and I filled in the other details of the course with my head. My co-driver’s words were confirmation that the images in my head were right.”
Does that mean you also see with your ears when you are driving?
“Acoustic stimuli hone what you see, or what you think you’re seeing. The visual image gets greater depth. Skiers don’t just see the ice, they hear it, too, because it sounds different from snow. It’s much the same with me when I’m driving. When what I can hear doesn’t tally with what I can see – or what I expect to see – I’ll switch into alarm mode. In my sport, the words of my co-driver are the equivalent of the scraping on the skis.”
When you’re alone in the car, whose voice do you hear?
“I don’t really know. Probably not my co-driver’s. Probably my own.”
SÉBASTIEN, THE GYMNAST
In his teenage years, Loeb was a gymnast, which is the best way to get to know your body, he says. Loeb’s body is like a second pair of eyes for him, because it always knows, with great precision, the position he’s in. He illustrates his point with an example from the world of gymnastics. A lot of people attempting to do a backwards somersault would close their eyes when they were in the air and bank on getting the jump right.
Loeb, by contrast, keeps his eyes open while airborne, so that he can make small adjustments. If he gets his take-off wrong – which doesn’t happen very often – he can still react while in the air, because his brain knows the position his body is in and is capable of factoring in the visual information it receives.
FORMULA ONE TEST DRIVES
This skill has helped him enormously in unfamiliar situations such as his Formula One test drives. With almost no preparation, he came within 1.8 seconds of the lap record. “Everything happens a lot faster in a Formula One car than it does anywhere else. Whereas you might normally brake 110m out, in F1 it’s 70m out and you’re coming in at greater speed. In that situation, what your body feels supports what you see with your eyes.”
Loeb is convinced that heightened interaction between your eyes and body aids enjoyment and safety in life on a day-to-day basis. He believes the skill can be of just as much use to a layperson as a sportsman. And, of course, the earlier you start learning to see with your body, the better. “OK, so you’re probably not going to take up gymnastics yourself at 40,” he says. “but parents can sign their children up to a club. You learn certain things very easily when you’re young and they’ll help you your whole life.”
A PAIR OF EAGLE EYES
Admittedly, Loeb also has a pair of eagle eyes for good measure. Is that luck? Did he inherit them? The son of a maths professor and a gymnastics teacher, he never had to eat carrots to improve his eyesight. Whereas others are wearing glasses at 41, he still has the 20-20 vision that would have been good enough to get him into flying school. On the wall opposite him is a photograph of a Citroën Xsara at Rally Sweden, and Loeb can read the number plate, no problem. Or does he just know his old number plate by heart? “Actually, that’s my teammate Carlos Sainz, not me,” he replies.
Loeb says that his vision has become specialised over the years, out of necessity. He definitely focuses on the immediate field of vision. “I’m incredibly bad at the tests where you stand by a wall, then lights come on briefly at the top, bottom, left and right of the wall and you have to touch them as quickly as possible.” Incredibly bad, you would presume, by his own extremely high standards.
HIS NEXT CHALLENGE: RALLYE DAKAR
But it’s this very skill – being able to focus on everything at once – that will be crucial to the completion of his next challenge. When he makes his Dakar debut, Loeb will need to be able to see close up and far away at the same time. He’ll have one eye on the route, with his co-driver only able to provide a rough description rather than the turn-by-turn, rock-by-rock indicators that Loeb is used to. It’ll be a strange new voice inside his head that supports what Loeb’s sight is telling him, which won’t be easy.
So while one eye is trying not to get lost among the dunes, trees and riverbeds, the other is scanning the surface for rocks and other obstacles that could, at speeds of 160kph or more, spell disaster for the whole venture – or at least lose him a tyre. “It’s really stressful. You’ve got to process too many stimuli at once,” says Loeb. “It’s 40°C outside, 60°C in the car, and your brain is constantly focused on two things at once. And if you make one single mistake, that could be the end of it all. Even I can’t see things that fast.”