July 15, 2024
How a WRC legend is still making people sit up and take notice

Sebastien Loeb hasn’t been snapped up by a World Rally Championship team for a part-time drive this year, but the phone may already be ringing again after his latest triumph. The nine-time world champion once again reminded the rallying fraternity of his supreme talent last Sunday by adding the Azores Rally to his glittering list of achievements.

Competing on his first traditional rally of the year following an invitation from the event organisers, 49-year-old Loeb and co-driver Laurene Godey – the Frenchman’s partner – took a Toksport Skoda Fabia RS Rally2 to a 19.2-second victory over two-time Azores winner Andreas Mikkelsen.

The feat on the Portuguese island gravel rally was made impressive by the fact that it was Loeb’s first competitive outing in the car, rekindling memories of his charge to the 2022 Monte Carlo win, his 80th career WRC victory, on the debut of M-Sport’s Ford Puma. Loeb’s victory was made even sweeter by the way he fended off a charge from Mikkelsen, competing in the same machinery, which the Norwegian spent countless hours developing last year.

Coincidently, Loeb’s victory arrived just hours before French television station Canal had scheduled the premiere of a new documentary celebrating Loeb’s career – Sebastien Loeb: Eternal Pilot. It’s a title that couldn’t be more apt since it seems the driver they call Le Maestro is showing no signs of slowing down and is set to continue to stun motorsport fans into his fifties.

Following the victory, Loeb wrote on Twitter: “Thank you, Azores Rally. An incredible rally, a top co-driver, a perfect car, amazing tyres… a weekend I’m not ready to forget.”

While his display in the Azores once again underlined how he has lost none of his speed, at this moment it appears that Loeb could sit out the WRC this year. M-Sport declared interest in again signing him to a part-time programme after his impressive displays last year, when he led three of the four rallies he contested. But, as with most things in motorsport, it all comes down to funding and resources, and at the minute M-Sport is pouring all of its firepower into new signing Ott Tanak. But the door is not completely closed.

Loeb has no WRC programme at present, but could still make an appearance in 2023

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

“Certainly if we do use anyone else, it will be later in the season when potentially we need to take points off our competitors,” team principal Richard Millener told Autosport when asked about the likelihood of a Loeb return. “But at the moment all of the resources are going into Ott to make things as good as possible for him.”

If Tanak is in the mix for the title come the end of the year, Loeb would be the perfect weapon to deploy to take points off rivals, and no doubt M-Sport will do all in its power to make that happen.

Toyota is already using Loeb’s former arch-rival Sebastien Ogier to similar and devastating effect this year. Ogier returned to the top of the WRC standings after scoring a stunning record-breaking Rally Mexico victory last month, despite only contesting two of the three WRC rounds held so far this year. It followed a record ninth Monte Carlo win in January that lifted him one clear of Loeb in the event’s all-time winners list and prompted Loeb to challenge Ogier to another showdown next year. The rally world will most definitely will have its fingers crossed for another Seb versus Seb epic.

The rally world will most definitely will have its fingers crossed for another Seb versus Seb epic

But Ogier’s impressive display comes as no surprise, since he showed last year that he still has the speed and skill to compete for another world title should he wish to return to full-time driving, a matter he continues to downplay.

There is an argument that Loeb’s and Ogier’s continual dominance at the top of the world rallying when they turn up to selected events casts a shadow on the discipline and its current crop of drivers. But I think that’s unfair. There is plenty of talent on show: Kalle Rovanpera proved last year that he is a very worthy contender and was able to beat the pair in Portugal and Kenya. At times on his run to become the youngest world champion, he appeared as though he was from another planet.

The achievements of Loeb and Ogier will perhaps never be surpassed for as long as the WRC is in existence. So let’s just enjoy it while it lasts. The two Sebs are in many ways the Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal of the rally world, and everyone seems to marvel at the epic grand slam chase played out between that duo.

Loeb showed he has lost none of his speed with victory on the Azores Rally

Loeb showed he has lost none of his speed with victory on the Azores Rally

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