So he’s done it. With the 75th WRC victory of his astonishing career, Sébastien Loeb has ensured his ninth consecutive drivers’ championship – with Daniel Elena taking the honours as co-driver for the ninth time and Citroën taking its eighth manufacturers’ crown.
This is not news, of course.
We had all been expecting this result, and once the rally proper got underway on Saturday morning, Loeb did what was needed and built towards the magic 30-second cushion. At the halfway point this was done – not even Colin McRae at his feistiest ever thought that a 30s gap was surmountable if both cars were running well.
The 2012 Rallye de France-Alsace became yet another tour-de-force and thereafter the hyperbole began to spout – as did the detractors who claim that Loeb can’t be compared to (insert the name of your preferred 1970s-1990s icon here) because of the lack of competition in the sport during his reign.
Well… yes and no.
The WRC has crumbled during Loeb’s reign, with only Ford offering any meaningful resistance at all from 2006. But let us not forget that in his early years, Loeb was thrown into the lion’s den.
The biggest and most successful names of the previous generation may have been getting long in the tooth but the likes of Sainz, McRae, Burns, Makinen, Grönholm, Delecour, Auriol and Panizzi were all very much active when the ‘boy wonder’ appeared in their midst. Loeb even had both Sainz and McRae as team-mates in 2003 and outpaced them both.
Those who say that the WRC became boring in the Loeb/Citroën era also have a point, although that is no fault of the competitors. From the high water mark of seven manufacturers doing battle in 1999-2000 it fell to six in 2001, five in 2004, three in 2006 and two in 2009.
There are also many who decry the metronomic precision with which Loeb and Elena applied themselves to the job – that a scientific, calculated approach is an anathema to going sideways through forests at 100mph. Well, yes, but the thing is that inspirational drivers seldom achieve as much as they should.
In F1 Ronnie Peterson, Gilles Villeneuve and Jean Alesi won hearts but seldom races and never titles. In rallying Markku Alén never won a pukka world championship and neither did Henri Toivonen. Colin McRae was too inconsistent too repeat his 1995 title despite all the efforts of first Subaru and then Ford.
Pace is one thing, but control is quite another.
Being able to drive within the limits of yourself and your car and still be so far ahead of rivals of the calibre of, say, Marcus Grönholm in the course of season after season, on snow, asphalt and gravel and all the many permutations of the WRC calendar… that is undeniably special.
That is why WRF joins the salute to our record-breaking world champion as he seals what might just be his last WRC title. We hope not, because we’re a bit anally retentive and 10 titles is a much better number to retire with than nine.
Perhaps that’s how Seb is going to make it more of a challenge next year – he won the title in 2006 despite missing the last four rounds, so why not skip a few more and still clean up on awards night? After all, when you look at what Loeb has achieved – and Elena and Citroën – it goes far beyond any rational argument to say that it can’t happen.
Loeb holds records for the most championships, rally wins, stage wins, podium finishes and points in WRC history – records of towering achievement that it will take almost a decade for a similarly-accomplished driver to match. To do so would mean the sort of skill that has delivered only 25 retirements from 162 starts, and aside from Loeb, that’s a statistic nobody has achieved.
When you look at it that way, you can only wonder where the likes of Mikko Hirvonen, Petter Solberg and Jari-Matti Latvala have even found the willpower to turn up and offer any sort of resistance over the past few years. They were in the best place to know that, when it comes to Loeb, resistance is futile.
Félicitations, champion des champions – et bonne chance à l’avenir.