Sebastien Loeb: In a league of his own
"I don't only eat vegetables, ah! I also drink wine and have a normal life," Sebastien Loeb says to me with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile on his face. To be honest, I'm startled. Before my interview with Loeb I'd be told by very many well-meaning people that he was shy and stoic to the point of appearing disinterested in interviews. It caused me some worry. And this worry resulted in me drinking far too many cups of coffee while going over my questions for the interview. Which is why, when I arrive at the Peugeot Hansen hospitality area at the Hockenheimring where the third round of the 2017 World Rallycross Championship is being held, my right hand is trembling just a little. I accept a glass of water to soothe my dry throat. Yes, it's gone dry because I'm nervous and hopped up on caffeine all at once. And that's why when Sebastien Loeb looks at me and smiles, telling me that he's a regular guy, who doesn't go overboard in the way he approaches motorsport, I'm surprised. By the statements that he makes. And the smile on his face. After all, this is Sebastien Loeb. The man whose very existence seems to indicate that he's the product of a rather fortuitous marriage between time and victory. So it's hard to believe that the nine World Rally Championship titles, the Pikes Peak record at his very first go at it, and that near victory at the Dakar in his second attempt at the event came from such an approach to motorsport.
Loeb says he does his job "correctly" without going overboard
"No," he says to me and shrugs his shoulders when I ask if he's a very disciplined person. I think the fact that I'm mildly disbelieving is obvious. So he repeats the question I've asked him to see if he's heard right. "Very disciplined person?" he asks. And when he's gotten confirmation of the fact that that is indeed what I asked him, he says "No," and shrugs his shoulders once more. This time he also laughs a little and it transforms his face. He tells me that he doesn't train every single day, and didn't in the past either. He looks rather dismissive of the suggestion. And then when he sees how incredulous I am about the things that he's saying, he clarifies.
"My job, I do it correctly, I would say. I'm not doing sport every day, and I drive only when we are testing. But when I did the rally, I always try to have very precise notes. When we take the pacenotes, I was always wanting to be as precise as possible. I was doing my job correctly. And it's also what I do here," he says. He explains that over the course of the WRX weekend, they have more time than they had in rallying (and perhaps some other disciplines of motorsport - Loeb's also competed in the WTCC, the FIA GT Championship and at Le Mans in the past), but he spends his time productively. This involves thinking of the ideal set-up for the 600PS Peugeot 208 WRX that he drives, and focussing on the race when he needs to. But outside of this, he assures me that he's a regular chap. "I have a normal life. And I enjoy to spend some time with my friends, with my family, like everybody." And of course that includes, as he says, not restricting himself to a diet of only vegetables, and allowing himself a glass or two of vin rouge.
The second time in the conversation when I raise my eyebrows at what Loeb says is when he responds to my question about whether he spends time analysing his losses. To begin with he admits that he's not had to deal with too many losses. "I won a good percentage of the events compared to other drivers. So I don't complain." But then he does say that when there have been instances where he's faced a loss, or when he's made a mistake, he does try and analyse what went wrong. "But quickly, ah! I don't think to it for two days, ah," he laughs. So I ask if this is because he believes that sometimes whatever will be will be. If he doesn't try to analyse losses too much because sometimes it's down to luck or destiny. To which Sebastien Loeb, the man whose list of accomplishments in the field of motorsport is probably longer than all of his and Daniel Elena's pacenotes lined end to end, says, "It's also because I am a bit lazy." He laughs as he sees the expression on my face. "For sure I want to win," he says. "But when we crashed, I was never for two days like this," he says putting his head in his hands and grimacing. It's hard not to laugh. And it makes talking to him a lot easier than I had imagined it would be.
Sebastien Loeb's having a challenging time in the World Rallycross Championship. And even if the world's most accomplished driver is something of a rookie in the series, he says he's having fun in his 600PS Peugeot 208 WRX
Loeb is able to disconnect from the world when he's in his car, and disconnect from racing when he's out in the world
But like Loeb says, he's not had to deal with as many losses as other drivers have. In fact it's quite the opposite. He's had massive amounts of success, not only having won more WRC titles than everyone else, but also having had more WRC victories than any other driver, more WRC podiums than any other driver, and also more WRC points than any other driver. He's statistically the most successful man in the history of the World Rally Championship. And so it's only fitting to want to know his definition of success. "Success is when you win," he says. "When you don't win, it's not a success," Loeb says very definitely. "To be the most successful driver, okay. But I don't care about this. Maybe I won more events and titles than anybody, so that makes my career successful. But success is victory," he says.
Since he's had to come to terms with a new discipline of motorsport though, if we're to apply his definition of success to the situation, he hasn't really had too much of it. There's been just the one victory at the Latvia RX in 2016. Which, for someone who is used to winning, can be hard? "Yeah, sure," he says. "My goal for sure is to be successful. But on the other side, my first goal is to have fun in what I do. I like to do what I like," he says. What motivates him though is the knowledge that victory is a possibility. "If I start a race and I know that if everything goes well I will finish eighth, then I don't like this. As long as I feel I can win, then that's more important I think. And then when you win, it's a pleasure," he says. Loeb also says that he isn't afraid of a challenge, and so it never bothered him that people were telling him that he was running the risk of destroying his image by pursuing a different discipline. "I did what I did," he says of the past. "So even if now I am not able to win in another discipline, and even if it's more difficult, it's life. And if I enjoy what I do " he shrugs.
In fact, Loeb says he's used this principle of doing only what he enjoys doing to guide him through his whole career. "I always drove like I feel. If I enjoy it..." he says. "It's for that I decided to retire from WRC, because I won nine titles. I didn't know. I had the opportunity to do a few races in the Porsche (Supercup). I felt finally that I have more pleasure when I go for a Porsche race than when I go for the WRC." He also felt that stopping at 39 meant that he was still young enough to adapt to other forms of motorsport. Making the switch later, like now when he's 43, is too late to start a new sport, he says. "A lot of people ask me 'Why you stop at nine and not ten?' Just like this. I wanted to do something else." Yes, he shrugs at the end of this sentence. Sebastien Loeb seems to shrug rather a lot. It's just a part of his way of speaking, and perhaps typical of the region that he hails from.
On his way to winning the qualifying rounds at Hockenheim RX, although he'd eventually finished the final fifth
Discussing the event with team-mate Timmy Hansen
But it's also this principle of enjoying what he was doing that landed him in motorsport to begin with. "I was just enjoying this. It was my passion to drive, to do the perfect corner. But why, I didn't know. It was just what I enjoyed." Then came the Rallye Jeunes, Peugeot's programme to scout for fresh motorsport talent, which Loeb eventually won. And from there things just grew. People gave him a car to rally, helped him find sponsors, and off he went. "The talent detection was for rallying," Loeb says of his early years in motorsport and of how he stumbled into rallying. "If it was for motorbike, then I will do motorbike," he laughs. And along the way he discovered that rallying really was a discipline that he liked. "I am not a racing driver. To analyse every corner, every detail, to repeat it all the time, it's not my best point. I am more a natural driver and so rally was finally the best decision for me." He points out that rallycross is a mix - there's the feeling that the car is a little like a rally car, with a lot more power, but there's also the need to analyse every corner because you know you have to repeat it. "But the sensation that you have in rallying, you don't have it anywhere else," he says, and once again the stoic veneer vanishes, if only for a second, and his eyes light up.
So what does the world's greatest rally driver believe made him as good at the sport as he was? "I think most of the performances is the natural talent I had. I still think, especially in rally, it's the base. Then you can work on it, you can develop it, but the base is what was the case for me." He pauses for a second to think it over and says, "I was always faster than my friends when we were driving cars on roads or having fun. I was better than them. That was nature at its base," he says. He tells me that he's observed drivers across various fields of motorsport who aren't very good, but who work hard and are able to reach a certain level. But then they hit a ceiling and don't move beyond this level. Which is the reason he believes "if you want to be in the top, in any discipline that is world championship level, I think it is the talent that is important."
But natural talent and all, Loeb's own realisation that he could win and be successful in motorsport came after a few years in the sport. "It came quite late. I knew really that I have the chance to be world champion when I was in my first WRC season. My team-mates were Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae, and I was fighting with them on every surface and they were already world champions. So, that was only around 2003 I think that I knew 'Okay, if I can beat them, maybe I can be a champion.'" And once he discovered that he was able to drive at the world championship level, he never felt the need to take a real break from the sport. "I start in motorsport not because I have to start motorsport, but because it's my passion. And still it is my passion. And I still have pleasure when I am fighting, when I am driving fast. So I don't need special motivation," he says.
Figuring out how aggressive one must be is also a challenge in the WRX championship, says Loeb
Which is also why the fact that he needs to fight so hard in the WRX isn't something that he's phased by. In fact, Loeb says that he's happy with the progress that they've made as a team. It's a big improvement on the 2016 season, and even though there are teams like Volkswagen who have made it to the championship this year, with a fully developed Polo R5 from their WRC programme, the Peugeot Hansen team is holding its own. In fact I've caught Loeb on a rather good day, given that he's managed to win both Qualifying rounds at the Hockenheimring. The challenge that he needs to come to terms with he says is having other cars around him, a marked departure from the WRC where he'd have an empty stage ahead of him. "I had a bit of experience in racing. But it's not so intense that it is here," he says speaking of the way cars line up together in the same row and all barrel into the first turn side by side. But Loeb also says that he believes the 2017 season sees a slightly less aggressive side to rallycross.
"I think the regulations have got strict, and with the level of the drivers who are really good and know that the goal is not to push and to pass. The real goal is to have a good time," he says. Loeb also says that if the car in front of you is fast, then it's okay to follow, safe in the knowledge that you will clock a good time and make it to the next round. "If you are behind a slow car, then you need to find a solution, because you can lose a lot of points in qualifying," he says. And it's here that rallycross throws Sebastien Loeb the biggest challenge he needs to come to terms with. "It's still difficult to find the right level of aggressivity (sic)," he says. "To be respected, but not do crazy things, because I don't want to be the guy who pushes everybody off. And I am a gentle guy. I need, sometimes, not to be too gentle with some drivers. The goal is still to win. So even if I push a bit, it's a race. This is something I have to think a bit, sometimes. Not to be too soft."
Not sure if Loeb's smiling here because he's being forced to, or because I've caught him in a good mood!
That being said, Loeb tells me that he doesn't get angry. That he's a calm sort overall. And I believe him when he says that at times situations have frustrated him, but not angered him. Things like his co-driver making a mistake in a rally like the Dakar, which has led to them getting lost and losing their lead in a stage. And in rallycross, there have been occasions when he's gone up to other drivers to speak to them after an incident. Not to fight, he assures me, just to see why something happened the way it did. He doesn't even remember who it was, or what event. He disconnects easily, he says. From losses and success. "When I'm at home, I do not think to it. I don't wake up every day and think "Oh, I am a world champion."
But this multiple world champion is also the first to admit that he believes two major factors in his life have been luck and destiny. "If people call me someday to give me a car to drive in a rally, that was more destiny than hard work," he says. "There was luck also," he says speaking of his first WRC rally with Citroen at San Remo in 2001. "I was faster than the Citroen drivers. I was fighting for the win of the rally till the end. And one time I was really close to crash, I suddenly hit something and I went," he motions with his hands that his car left the road and was launched into the air, "but it threw me again on the road and it was no problem. And I finished second overall." This, he insists, was luck. Because if he had crashed and retired from the rally, the calls that he got from all the manufacturers, those calls that decided the future of his rally career would not have come. Life could have been very different indeed.
But perhaps the most significant lesson that Loeb says he learned over his very long career in motorsport is "That you are always to continue to work and never feel too confident." Even when he had already won 10 rallies in a season, he wouldn't rest on his laurels and approach a situation with too much confidence. "I was always afraid of my rivals before the start. And then, okay, when I see finally I am faster than everyone else, then I got the confidence. But before the start I was always not sure and I always still try to optimise everything to give me as much chance as possible," he says. "The lesson is to continue to work and not feel too confident." It's seemingly very simple advice. But it's led to spectacular results for this rather unassuming chap from Alsace, who once was a professional gymnast, and then became a professionally trained electrician.
And I really feel like Loeb isn't resting on his laurels. In fact, he's working towards those last few motorsport goals that he has. "I know I was the fastest at the Dakar, and in the end I didn't win. Yeah, we will see next year, for sure the goal is to win next year."
Then I ask how important the WRX championship title is to him. "It would be nice," Loeb laughs. "Important?" he asks and pauses. "Nothing is important as long as you are well and not sick and you have a good life. That is the most important thing." It's at this point that Loeb tries to explain what it is that he holds dear to him in his life. "When I was younger, I had to make my career. Then it was very important for me," he says of titles in motorsport. "Today, I won many titles in my career, I don't need especially to win more. It's just because I enjoy what I do that I do it, so the pressure is a little different." He thinks a little longer and then says, "Okay, it's my image and everything. I try to do it as best as possible. But it's more important to be well and not sick than to win," says Loeb.
So what are the three most important things to Sebastien Loeb? He says first, "My daughter, my wife and my friends." Then he looks at me, and says "And motorsport is also part of my life. I think I would be sad if I didn't " he trails off. Then he says after a little consideration, "So I would say, my family, my friends and motorsport. Because all my life is still around it. If today I stop all driving, I don't know what I will do."
The idea of a life without motorsport bothers him, then? "Yeah, I am used to move. And I didn't prepare anything else for after. And nothing interests me as much as driving and racing really. So if I stop and have to stay at home with nothing special to do, then it would not be what I like," he says. There is, he says, the possibility that he might take to only managing the Sebastien Loeb Racing team, but it hasn't worked in the past. "I went in some races, and I went to see, and I start to turn around and I would like to drive instead of looking at the cars driving." But it's an option for the future, he waves his hand as if to indicate that future is still rather far away in the distance for now. I'm inclined to believe him.
So what makes Sebastien Loeb, Sebastien Loeb? I'm still puzzling over this long after our interview is over. On the face of it, I feel like I met a regular bloke. Because when you look past the championship trophies, that's precisely what Loeb is. A regular chap who seems to have got his priorities right and leaves work at work when he gets out of his 600PS office.
Then I think back to that video of Loeb in the Peugeot 208 T16, testing the limits of grip at Pikes Peak, determined to drive the perfect lap and go as fast as he could possibly go and claim the mountain, all the while keeping in mind, in his own words, "to know exactly where you want to put this limit between safety and risk". No, there's nothing ordinary about that at all. Which leads me to this conclusion. That every once in a while there emerges proof that not all men are created equal. And every once in a while, that's perfectly okay. Sebastien Loeb appears to be a living example of just this.
Images: DPPI & FIAWorldRallycross.com