How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sebastien?



Over the weekend, Citroen's Sebastien Loeb won an eighth consecutive World Rally Championship drivers' title. Let's put the series' state of health and the tedium of a dominant competitor to one side for a moment so that we might give the Frenchman the credit he deserves for a remarkable achievement.

Loeb has the edge on his competition...
Loeb has the edge on his competition...
Maintaining a certain level of motivation and discipline over a decade is a feat in itself. To also retain that level of sporting sharpness is more impressive still, but to then apply these qualities over so many years without once being beaten to the championship is just out of this world. It's the same collection of virtues that made names like Schumacher, Rossi, Federer, Ali, Armstrong and Woods so iconic - although none managed a run of success as enduring as Loeb's.

Has he overcome a sufficient calibre of rival during his career to warrant comparison with such greats? I humbly think so. Finn Marcus Gronholm was a standout driver of the fiercely competitive McRae/Burns/Makinen/Sainz era, winning the world championship twice. Although Gronholm came desperately close to beating Loeb in the title race on two occasions, he just didn't ever have the measure of the Frenchman.

Loeb himself admits that always having had the fastest car in the service park has been central to his success, but we must remember that he was instrumental in their development (particularly of the C4 and the current DS3). Citroen Racing's technical director Xavier Mestelan-Pinon explains his capabilities thus: "His job during testing is to understand what is and what is not important, and to explain to us what he can feel. He understands these things, which is what makes him such a good development driver."

So where others fall off...
So where others fall off...
Much of his speed down a stage can be accredited to his incredibly detailed pacenote system. While other drivers' notes are designed to tell them how fast they can drive around a corner, Loeb's notes describe the profile of each bend in minute detail. He can then calculate how fast each corner can be taken in consideration of all the other information that's available to him; his notes aren't susceptible to variations in weather conditions, tyre wear or visibility.

Ultimately, though, Loeb's success is a direct product of his driving style and confidence. He's essentially the greatest ever tarmac specialist, but he's been able to apply his methods to all surfaces. We know that a corner on a racing circuit has an optimum braking point, turn-in point, line, power-on point and so on. The best Formula 1 drivers hit all of these points perfectly corner after corner, lap after lap.

...he keeps it pointed the right way
...he keeps it pointed the right way
Every corner on a rally stage also has a set of optimum points, but it's infinitely more difficult to hit each of them every time because there are thousands of corners to learn during a rally, rather than just 15 or so. Loeb is best able to consistently work out where these points are, then nail them.

What inevitably follows is victory. That breeds huge confidence in his own abilities and methods, which means he's capable of resisting the temptation to become more aggressive in the heat of a battle. He instead channels his competitive spirit into driving perfectly, into better hitting the optimum points on every corner.

Loeb is unique in his ability to do this. When the other drivers in the service park want to go faster, they 'push harder'. They brake later, get on the power earlier, try to carry more speed around a corner. They start to miss turn in points or run wide onto loose gravel, shedding time. When they see that Loeb has still gone faster, they believe that the Frenchman must be pushing even harder than they are. Their only solution is to push harder still, which just sees them make even more mistakes. Loeb, meanwhile, continues to drive perfectly, never leaving his comfort zone.

The result? More flamboyant drivers...
The result? More flamboyant drivers...
While Loeb wins, becomes more confident, drives 'more perfectly' and wins again, his rivals lose, try harder, drive slower and lose again. For Loeb's rivals, it's absolutely crushing. It's hard to see how these virtuous and destructive cycles can ever be broken.

Mikko Hirvonen is a fine case in point. The Ford driver came within a point and a faulty bonnet clip of beating Loeb to the 2009 drivers' title. Missing out by such a narrow margin destroyed his confidence. He has spent the following two years trying to work out why he can't get back on the pace, despite pushing harder and taking more risks than ever before.

Loeb isn't braver than Hirvonen or the others. He's just confident enough to drive perfectly.

like Hirvonen or Meeke struggle to keep up
like Hirvonen or Meeke struggle to keep up
It's actually possible to see Loeb's driving style in practice. During last weekend's Wales Rally GB, I found myself standing on an earth bank high above a stage that rounded a tight left-hander a quarter of a mile to my right, passed me with a sweeping right-hander before disappearing again a quarter of a mile to my left. Loeb tackled this sweeper in a beautiful, arcing drift, with just one brake input, three steering inputs (turn in, hold and straighten) and a constant throttle. His pursuers were typically on and off the brakes, hurling corrective lock at it and prodding at the throttle.

It's going to take an accurate replication of these principles by a very talented driver if Loeb is to be beaten in the world championship. Of course, Citroen might one year build a duff car or Loeb could suffer a string of unfortunate incidents, but in performance and consistency terms, he remains in a league of his own. He mightn't be beaten before he retires, and with a two-year contract with Citroen in place, that might just take him to 10 titles.

And he's untouchable on Tarmac
And he's untouchable on Tarmac
The eight-time world champion is responsible for rendering the flamboyant driving style of many a Finn completely outdated. For some that'll be a shame, harmful as it was to the spectacle of rallying. Loeb has forced a generation of drivers to deconstruct their driving styles and rebuild them based on circuit racing principles. He's changed the face of rallying and - for better or for worse - that's a remarkable legacy.

Comments (109) Join the discussion on the forum

  • marcosgt 21 Nov 2011

    IainW said:
    jetpilot said:
    Which begs the question, why are they not still in WRC?

    Is it the Evo and Imprezza have simply run their course, was it very early 90's they came into production? Have they literally taken that design/name as far as they can and to build a new car from scratch rather than update must cost millions? Nothing lasts for ever, name in point the Delta, Celica, 205/206 etc
    I'm guessing because they didn't have the funding the other WRC-spec teams had and could never get to grips with the switch from a Group A to a WRC car. By the time the Evo WRC arrived, everyone else had at least 3 years of a headstart on them.

    Liked the Delecour video, he's another character I miss. Of the current crop the one that excites me most is Latvala. He's your typical flat-out Vatanen/McRae/Delecour-style driver. Remember watching him when he was 17 doing the BRC in a Focus WRC and he was very spectacular to watch. Sadly the current breed of cars don't like going sideways.

    Great article by the way. If only Loeb had taken up the VW offer, then we'd have seen if he was just as good in different surroundings.
    I don't see the current cars are any less happy going sideways than the Focus WRC.

    No 4WD car is at its best going sideways (in fact, no matter how 'cool' it looks, no rally car is at its best going sideways or flying), but the latest cars seemed to be an improvement visually to me, both in terms of how they look themselves and in terms of 'on the road' presence.

    M

  • JB! 21 Nov 2011

    Cracking article.

    For me, motorsport peaked in the 90's frown

    BTCC/Supertouring

    F1

    Rallying


    All half the sports they used to be frown athough at least BTCC is getting good fun to watch again!

    I love Rallying, used to work in JWRC as an apprentice, there is something so much more raw about a rally car than any open wheeler or tin-top, the problem is, to joe public, these beasts look tamed by Mr Loeb, and the lack of coverage/publicity/road specials doesnt help!

  • IainW 21 Nov 2011

    jetpilot said:
    Which begs the question, why are they not still in WRC?

    Is it the Evo and Imprezza have simply run their course, was it very early 90's they came into production? Have they literally taken that design/name as far as they can and to build a new car from scratch rather than update must cost millions? Nothing lasts for ever, name in point the Delta, Celica, 205/206 etc
    I'm guessing because they didn't have the funding the other WRC-spec teams had and could never get to grips with the switch from a Group A to a WRC car. By the time the Evo WRC arrived, everyone else had at least 3 years of a headstart on them.

    Liked the Delecour video, he's another character I miss. Of the current crop the one that excites me most is Latvala. He's your typical flat-out Vatanen/McRae/Delecour-style driver. Remember watching him when he was 17 doing the BRC in a Focus WRC and he was very spectacular to watch. Sadly the current breed of cars don't like going sideways.

    Great article by the way. If only Loeb had taken up the VW offer, then we'd have seen if he was just as good in different surroundings.

  • McCrash 20 Nov 2011

    A little snippet about RB and further proof of what a top top guy he was. While attending the Rally GB in 1998 we went along to get his autograph at a meet and greet - it was late and we were nearly last in with one guy behind us and a dad and his young son behind him. The PR guy was about to close the door on the dad and his son and RB spotted this and made sure the young lad got in to see him. He was in a rush and didn't need to do it, but he did. I've never forgotten that and despite McRae being my hero I always liked RB too. These were the days when the top 2 drivers were British - compare that to today! RIP RB.

  • zeb 18 Nov 2011

    +1

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