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

  • tbtstt 14 Nov 2011

    I believe that Loeb is the right driver in the right era. As the article states his driving style is clean and tidy and is well suited to the design of the modern WRC machinery (both the 2.0L and 1.6L cars). The more mechanical and less sophisticated Group A, Group B and early World Rally Cars required a more aggressive and flamboyant driving style to get the best out of them, this isn't the case with the current crop of cars which is why I think those drivers with experience in an assortment of other cars (old and new) don't get the best out of the modern World Rally Cars in the same way as Loeb.

    Loeb has stated on several occasions that he hasn't little interest in driving older rally cars and (perhaps wrongly) I don't believe they would suit his style at all.

    Loeb is certainly talented, of that there is no doubt, and he has seen off some major talent in his time, however if he was in the WRC in the mid-90's, with the car designs of that era, I believe it would be a very different story. As it stands he's not though and, although others have come close again this year, they have still yet to topple Loeb. 9 in a row?...

  • Twincam16 14 Nov 2011

    Perhaps budget has something to do with it then, to a degree. Citroen have much more money than the other teams, so as a result their car is more high-tech. If regulations were brought in to simplify the cars, thus increasing the competition, maybe things would be closer.

  • CliveM 14 Nov 2011

    Good read, thanks for the lack of hyperbole.

  • MrKipling43 14 Nov 2011

    That's the best article PH has published. Great read, thanks.

  • P I Staker 14 Nov 2011

    tbtstt said:
    9 in a row?...
    8. smile

    He is the man at moment, no doubt.

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