Despite their combined age being a mere ten years short of 100, there was a very real chance that Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena would win in Catalunya. Bedding himself back into Citroen’s difficult C3 on Friday’s gravel stages, the switch to Tarmac on Saturday saw Seb end the day eight seconds off the lead. At that point, it was almost a foregone conclusion. Sebastien Loeb does not go into the final day of a Tarmac rally eight seconds behind and not win. Simple.
Saturday 6th October 2001, Molini, Sanremo, Italy. At the stop line of the morning’s second stage (the event’s tenth), a new name at the top of the timesheets. Sebastien Loeb. Few might have guessed it at the time, but that name would become almost omnipresent at the head of rally leaderboards over the next decade. Come the end of Sanremo 2001, Loeb had set four fastest stage times, came within 11.4 seconds of snatching victory from the era’s acknowledged Tarmac master Gilles Panizzi, and given the establishment a big fright. The first rally win would come in time.
Monte Carlo 2002. Loeb wins on the road, but a needless tyre change by the team in a forbidden area lands Loeb with a two-minute penalty, handing the win to Tommi Makinen on his first event with Subaru. Loeb is philosophical, “If I can win ze rally, I will make it, and for me I will have win it. After zat, zey make what zey want.” The first insight into the man’s icy-cool demeanour. They’ve just cost him his first victory (in Monte Carlo, in a French car, on French tyres, as a French driver, no less), but he knows that seven Monte wins will come in time.
Germany 2002. On the cusp of his first win, Seb makes a small error on the Saturday evening’s meaningless super special stage, cutting his lead to ten seconds. Behind him lie Burns, Gronholm, McRae and Sainz. Swapping seconds on the final day with incumbent world champion Burns, Loeb holds on to take his first win. At the stop line of the last stage, Seb is cool, calm, looks like he’s been winning for years. No drama. He shakes Burns’ hand and commends him on a good fight. The 78 other wins will come in time.
Wales 2003. On his first full season in the WRC, Loeb finishes second in the championship, one point behind Petter Solberg. Solberg is thrilled with his title, his celebration at the stop line in Margam Park as wild as his driving. Loeb doesn’t push for the rally win or the driver’s championship in order to secure the manufacturer’s title for Citroen. There’s a hint of disappointment in his voice, but he knows that nine world titles will come in time.
Cork 20 2007. Citroen have brought a C4 for Loeb and a Xsara for Sordo, while Ford have a latest-specification Focus for Hirvonen. It’s a crazy time for Irish rallying, as the build-up to Rally Ireland sees appearances by works teams in Galway, Donegal and Cork in order to dial the cars and drivers in to the tricky Irish tar. My first glimpse of Loeb’s skill is on a fourth-gear right hander. It was third-gear for everyone else.
Catalunya 2018. The championship is going down to the wire, so Ogier and Neuville need to keep one eye on points. Loeb takes a chance on the harder tyre on Sunday morning. It works. Of course it works. It’s always worked. Loeb and Elena take their 79th victory. Seb celebrates with a backflip, Daniel celebrates by rolling on the ground and smoking a fag. People ask if they’ll be back. Loeb says he hasn’t given it much thought. There’s nothing left to prove. Whatever he does, we’re privileged to be alive at the same time as the greatest driver in the history of motorsport.