THE most successful world champion driver on four wheels, Frenchman Sébastien Loeb, will make a highly-anticipated return to the FIA World Rally Championship in Mexico next weekend.
PHOTO: Sébastien Loeb will contest Rally Guanajuato Mexico this weekend in the first of three comeback drives for the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team (Citroën pic).
Loeb’s drive in Rally Guanajuato Mexico will be first of three comeback appearances this season with the factory Citroën team, for which he won nine straight drivers’ titles up to 2012 and his retirement from full-time rallying.
While the 44-year-old former gymnast known as the Little Master says the events in Mexico, France and Spain are “for fun”, the rally world will be watching to see how he handles the ultra-fast, new-era World Rally Cars and whether he can boost the standings of his team, which has struggled in the past year.
Loeb has lost none of his aura as the sport’s most indomitable champion and his appearance in Mexico – where he has won a record six times – inevitably will put focus on the performance of his rivals, especially his successor as world champion, countryman Sébastien Ogier.
The two were uneasy teammates at Citroën in 2010-11, but have competed against each other only five times since then, Loeb winning twice and Ogier three times as he embarked on his own spree of five drivers’ championships with Volkswagen and M-Sport.
Although Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena have not competed regularly for five seasons, they contested four rounds in 2013 and one in 2015. Meantime he has raced in the World Touring Car Championship, World Rallycross Championship and the South American-based Dakar Rally and set a still-unbeaten record on Colorado’s famous Pikes Peak hillclimb.
FOUR-WHEEL AND TWO-WHEEL SERIES CHAMPIONS
9 wins – Sébastien Loeb, World Rally Championship
8 wins – Giacomo Agostini, 500cc/MotoGP World Championship
7 wins – Michael Schumacher, Formula 1 World Championship
7 wins – AJ Foyt, IndyCar/IRL/CART/USAC Championship
7 wins – Jamie Whincup, Australian Supercars Championship
He confesses rallying is his first love, but rules out a full-time comeback and says times have moved on since he was the undisputed king of the stages. A recent pre-Mexico test in Spain was intended to help him learn the new Citroën C3, the fastest car he’s driven in his 14 WRC seasons so far.
“This is a rally that I have always loved, so I have high hopes I will enjoy these stages in the C3 WRC, which is an exciting car to drive,” Loeb said.
“Other than that, I have the same uncertainties as everyone else: although I hope to be more or less on the pace, I have no idea where I stand in relation to the other drivers, so I can’t wait to get started.
“You have to bear in mind that this is still the world championship. The other drivers haven’t stood still over the last few years.
“I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself as I know it will be complicated.
“I don’t have a precise target, I just do it for fun.”
In a WRC career that reaped nine drivers’ titles, 78 round wins and 906 stage wins, Loeb also contributed to Citroën’s eight manufacturers’ championships between 2003 and 2012. He contested Rally Australia six times between 2002 and 2011, winning in 2004 but uncharacteristically crashing out on his final appearance.
Rally Guanajuato Mexico will start on Thursday night near Leon, 330 kms north of Mexico City, and finish on Sunday after 345 kms and 22 competitive stages.
As well as trying to rediscover his speed as a rally driver, Loeb will face some of the WRC’s toughest conditions – rough gravel roads, temperatures up to 30 degrees and oxygen-thin altitudes up to 2700 metres that will choke his car’s performance.
Teammate Kris Meeke won the 2017 event, despite a dramatic, last-stage excursion into a spectator car park.
The WRC returns to the New South Wales Coffs Coast for the season finale, Kennards Hire Rally Australia, on 15-18 November.