Why Sébastien Loeb is going back to basics to win the DakarNine-time world rally champion Sébastien Loeb is going back to basics in pursuit of the ultimate rallying victory – the Dakar. Is this the race that breaks a legend?
THE RED BULLETIN: Tell us honestly, are we talking to a nine-time World Rally Champion or a rookie?
SÉBASTIAN LOEB: You’re talking to a racing driver. When I get up in the morning, I don’t say to myself, ‘I’m a nine-time world champion.’ Of course it’s something I’m proud of, but I don’t think about it that often.
You could have retired as the king of rallying back in 2013 when you weren’t yet 40. But rather than do that, you decided to devote yourself to a new event instead and gamble your halo in the process. How much of an inner struggle was it to make that decision?
A lot less of one than you might think. I’ve never raced because I wanted to be someone in particular. I’ve raced because racing is my passion. Maintaining an image isn’t something to aim for. My aim is to live my life the way I see fit. The joy of driving, the ambition, the competitive spirit… Those are the things that spur me on.
What does it feel like to transform from legend into relative beginner?
I feel the same as I did before. Because I’m not the type of person who spends his time keeping track of his feelings. I’m the type to work to improve my performance and results instead.
In 2014 and 2015, you took part in the World Touring Car Championship. You went straight into the lead and won races, but in the overall standings you ended up behind your young rival, José María López. What was it like dealing with failure?
Of course there are times when not winning is frustrating, but you’ve got to accept the results as they come. At the end of the day, López was better than me. It’s annoying, but that’s life! (He laughs.) But, most importantly of all, it didn’t stop me enjoying the races.
What does a nine-time world champion learn from defeat? Or does he only now learn things from defeat?
First, I had a realisation: the nature of rallying fits in perfectly with my own nature – the driving itself, the exploration, the improvisation, having to interpret the landscape.
Other things were more important on WTCC circuits – analysis, observation, learning every turn, genning up, repeating it over and over again… That was hard and often not much fun.
So you took up rallycross in 2016… If the job description is anything to go by, then it should have suited you right down to the ground, shouldn’t it?
Indeed. It was a return to natural motor racing for me. It’s just more relaxed. You never know what to expect in advance. That’s wonderful, don’t you think? Plus you had your rivals on the course with you. When you’re the quickest in a rally, you’re the quickest and that’s all there is to it. But in rallycross it depends on how the others perform, too. And that’s really exciting. You’re in a massively powerful car and there’s serious jostling for position and you’ve got to come through the field. A spectacle with that format is ideal for TV.
Was the first Dakar Rally you drove in January 2016 the ultimate challenge for Sébastien Loeb?
I lined up at the start as a rookie, as did my co-driver [Daniel Elena] who I won all nine of my WRC titles with. We didn’t have that special experience you need on rallies like the Dakar to find the right course or find our rhythm. We both had to start from scratch.
Doesn’t your record tally of rally wins help at least a bit?
You start from scratch, or near enough. There’s no script or anything to tell you that what you’re doing is right in the Dakar Rally. You go headlong into this adventure armed only with the roadbook and you end up in these places you know nothing about. One of the things Daniel’s roadbook said was that we had to go through 10km of rainforest and at some point we’d hit a road. So we drove those 10km and came to the last 500m, 400m, 300m, and then zero, but there was no road to be seen for love nor money. So what were we meant to do?
So Sébastien Loeb had to learn the right way to lose his bearings?
The problem isn’t so much the getting lost. Even the best people get lost. The important thing is to find the way to get back on track quickly. At times like those, it’s not about driving a car as fast as you can. Thinking, driving and communicating with your co-driver all at the same time is a really fascinating challenge. Daniel and I might have built up a lot of experience together, but the Dakar Rally requires a complete rethink of the way you operate.
After so many years of faultless rallying with Daniel at your side, how frustrating was it when he made a mistake during the Dakar? Could you accept that sort of thing?
Yes, even though it was frustrating. Two days before the end of the Silk Way Rally [a rally raid of 10,700km between Russia and China held in July 2016], Daniel made me miss two way points and we were penalised by four hours. That was the end as far as we were concerned. That was all part of the experience and the learning process, both for me and for Daniel.
Is the reverse also true, that Daniel’s success depends on you not making mistakes?
Of course. It was my mistake when we rolled the car at the Dakar last year. But there’s no point asking whose fault it was. We all have to learn from our own mistakes!
So, on balance, is it really worth the hassle of starting anew in unfamiliar territory?
I’m living out my passion. That’s the crux of the matter. Driving and racing itself are what I love most and what I’m best at. So is it worth it? You bet it is!
People think that an exceptional driver must by definition be a good driver. Is that the case?
There are different categories of driving and with that we have different ways of being good. Rallycross and the Dakar Rally are two events that suit me, even though they’re at opposite ends of the motorsport spectrum: a two-minute sprint and a six-hour-long haul.
With the depth of experience that you now have, would you be an even better driver if you went back to rallying?
I’ve learned more about efficiency and my driving style. But the fact that I haven’t driven in any rallies for years would no doubt cancel out whatever advantage I’ve gained from my other achievements. Whether that would make me better or worse, I don’t know.