Sebastien Loeb is late. This, if you have followed his remarkable racing career to date, basically never happens. Sebastien Loeb has recorded 78 overall wins, 116 podium finishes, 896 stage wins, 1619 points and a 46.7 per cent win record to make him and his co-driver – Daniel Elena – the most decorated rally partnership on earth. But Top Gear is waiting for him in a small restaurant for a chat, and Top Gear is hungry.
Still, we can wait. This is Sebastien Loeb. He is a nine-time WRC champion – that’s nine times in a row – and this weekend he’ll be taking part in his 168th WRC round. It’s in his native region of Alsace, to be specific, through his hometown in the French commune of Haguenau. And, fittingly, it’s his last ever WRC event.
The reason for his rock-star punctuality? It’s his rock-star status. His face is across 12ft wide billboards all across the town, and as the legendary champion makes his way into town, all hell has broken loose. And we’ll forgive him his lateness, because we rather like Seb. He turns up dressed like a uni student in the middle of a heavy revision schedule: tracky bottoms and a T-shirt. Still, TG has eaten its own bodyweight in bread rolls while waiting, so all is well.
You’ve just been crowned King of Pikes Peak and took your first championship race win in the FIA GT Series at Navarra in a McLaren GT car. Are you excited about getting back into a rally car?
It’s been a long time since I’ve done a rally and to be here in France is even more special. It’s nice to get back into the car. Of course it feels different when driving a rally car, but hopefully I’ll get it back. During testing it was ok, so hopefully it’ll be the same on the stages.
What’s been your biggest rally highlight in over a decade behind the wheel?
My best memory is the 2010 title I won here in France. It was here, in Haguenau, my hometown with all my friends and family and a lot of supporters. It was great to win the rally, the drivers’ and manufacturers titles all at the same time.
And your worst moment?
Probably before I was in the World Championship. It was in 1998 when I crashed a car. We re-built it then I crashed it straight away in testing, but we had no money to re-build it another time. I thought my career was finished just at the point it was starting. That was a really difficult time. I wasn’t even thinking about WRC, I was thinking about making the transition into rallying. I was winning races in the Saxo Trophy but after that crash I thought it was all over.
Do you have any regrets?
No. I don’t have any regrets after winning nine world titles.
Who’s the driver you’ve most liked competing against?
Marcus Gronholm was a great opponent. He was very fast and we had some extremely hard and tight battles, which was fun. My favourite battle with him was when I was in Auckland, New Zealand, when he won by 0.3 seconds but it was really intense from the start to the end.
Do you think that the WRC has changed for the better or worse since you’ve been in it?
I don’t think it’s really changed. They’ve tried to reduce the costs and there’s only one tyre choice now, which is a bit s***. I thought it was better before. But to cut down the cost, it was the right choice. For the rest, I think it’s pretty much the same story.
Do you think rallying is currently in a healthy state? Or can more be done to make it more appealing to the wider audience?
I think that they’ve tried to change it in different ways but in the end nothing really changes. The most difficult thing is to give life to the TV. But if you don’t have the live feed, it’s quite hard to make it interesting. It’s been like that for ten years and it’s still in the same position now.
Do you think that someone else could achieve the same WRC dominance that you’ve achieved?
We’ll see that in nine years. But at the moment Ogier has been dominating all the others and done a season a bit like how I’ve done seasons in the past. Maybe he can continue. Maybe he cannot. I think he’s very strong and he’s got his title. He’s showed good speed and more and more consistency. I was the champion for a long time, he will be champion for the first time now. I’ve finished my career, he’s starting his career – that’s life.
If you win this weekend, are we likely to see the return of the backflip like in 2004?
I’m a bit old now, that was nine years ago. I can still do it. Actually I did one last month.
How are you feeling coming into the final event of your rallying career?
I feel OK. It’s the last one so it’s a special feeling – especially being here in France. We decided at the start of the season that we’d do four rallies just for fun and it was always the plan to finish my last rally here. I feel good because it’s not the end of everything for me, I finished rallies last year and this is just for fun.
But you have one of the most competitive spirits out there, surely you want to go out there and win?
It’s not my priority to win. I’m here because we decided that I haven’t driven a rally car in a long time, so I want to get that feeling back. I hope I will not struggle too much in the mud on the first day, as my road position is not good. If everything is going well, we’ll see what we can do.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen you on a WRC rally stage, have you missed it?
No as I’m still busy and racing. I’ve been preparing for next year as I’m doing WTCC, and that’s my main focus at the moment. But what I’ll miss from the rally is the feeling you get from the stage as it’s still unique and special. But my life will not change after this: I’ll continue to do some testing, some races with Citroen and I’m happy with that.
What have you done to prepare for this rally?
I didn’t know how I’d feel in the car so last week I did a few laps in it. I did a short day testing on Monday but Iarrived very late and had to leave early, so only had a few runs. There hasn’t been a lot of preparation but I had the feeling with the car in testing, so hopefully that’s enough.
You’ve never been someone to show emotion. But this being your final rally, in your hometown, in front of your biggest fans, could we see your emotional side?
No. Like I said, for me, I finished rallying last year. This is just a bit of fun and to have my last rally in France and drive in front of my friends and with Daniel (his co-driver).
How’s the preparation for WTCC been going?
It’s going well, the feeling with the car is good but I’ve got a lot of things to learn. It makes me feel like a young driver again, which is great. But I have to learn more about the traffic and fighting with the other cars, this is something where I don’t have a lot of experience. It won’t be easy but that’s what makes it exciting. It’s another world championship with a different type of race and different style of driving. I have to learn everything again and that’s the challenge and what makes it exciting. Sure it will be difficult, I’ll have to fight with world champions in that discipline. It may be impossible, I don’t know. But the challenge is exciting and I’ll try my best to improve and be as competitive as possible.
Are you still open to other forms of motorsport? How about NASCAR next year?
I’m not interested in NASCAR and I have enough work to prepare for the WTCC. So not for the moment, but later I may do something else…
Words: Rowan Horncastle