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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.