Sébastien Loeb’s Monte Carlo win, aged 47 years, 10 months and 28 days, is a stark reminder that even in the era of a 22-year-old world champion, the best in the business never get too old to hack it.
Luckily for Rovanperä and co, Sébs Loeb and Ogier didn’t stick around all season long to make his life harder. In Italy, though, the drivers have had no such luck.
If you think Loeb wound back the clock in January this year, you should see Paolo Andreucci. The clock never moved in the first place.
“He’s 57 [years old] going on 27,” quips Vivek Ponnusamy, Andreucci’s team boss at MRF.
Andreucci has just wrapped up a second consecutive Italian Gravel title, adding to his overflowing trophy cabinet that’s packed with 15 national titles (plus another seven class-specific crowns) scored over the past two-and-a-bit decades.
There’s something different about Andreucci compared to his peers of a similar age, though. By 57, all of rallying’s great champions have usually pivoted to making the odd dalliance at their favorite rally, happy to scratch the itch every now and then without worrying too much about the outcome. It’s all in the name of fun and harking back to the old days.
It would be easy for Andreucci to do the same – his status would allow him to get away with it. At the recent Rally del Brunello, lots of fans both in host town Montalcino and the regroup in Buonconvento appeared to have come specifically to watch him. He is, as another driver I spoke to put it, God himself in Italian rallying circles.
But unlike God, Andreucci refuses to take a rest day.
“There are two parts to Paolo: one is competing, keeping himself rally fit. That’s one,” explains Ponnusamy. “The other one is development. We are testing the day after tomorrow [Tuesday].
“We have our get-together tonight, drive down tomorrow, and the day after Paolo’s back in the car and we are testing for three days non-stop. We are testing at two o’clock in the morning because we have to test our super-soft tire and for that, we need a very cold temperature.”
Pulling up to the stop control of stage three, Badia Ardegna, it would be easy to mistake Andreucci for being laid back, as he playfully gestured towards a handful of people swarming around his Skoda Fabia Rally2 evo at the finish line.
Two cars later and Alberto Battistolli, who had been his chief rival for the title, pulls in. It’s all business in the cockpit for Alberto. It has to be: beating Andreucci feels like climbing a mountain. Or, as Battistolli himself says: “Racing against Paolo is like racing against the sacred cow.”
There are, of course, pitfalls to perceiving your main rival as a deity. Drivers might like to pretend they don’t feel pressure in the heat of battle against a spy – but Battistolli concedes that against Paolo, you can’t help but feel the screw is being turned that bit tighter.
“You are wondering what he’s thinking about because you feel Paolo’s always calm; he’s always staying in the car, maybe sleeping!
“When you’re against him, you feel a lot of pressure,” Battistolli concludes.
My next sight of Battistolli after regroup is halfway through the penultimate stage. As he crests the top of a hill, his Fabia oversteers wildly, clinging to the edge of the road. He collects the oversteer but it’s an overcorrection – the dark turquoise machine disappears nose-first down the hillside.
He’s fine – but the Fabia is not. Game over.
Battistolli wasn’t kidding about the pressure.
The wait for Andreucci to be bested continues for another year. And he will definitely be back for another year. And probably some more after that. He might even still be defending his title by the time he turns 60.
“I’ve never seen even a minute during the past three years working with Paolo that he’s slacked, been tired, been complacent, or been conservative. Never,” says Ponnusamy.
“If everybody else is going down, he’s the one pushing us up. Come on, come on!” he adds, gesturing with urgency.
That high work-rate has paid dividends. Last year Andreucci won the Italian Gravel title by scoring two wins and 15 fastest stage times – this year, it was five wins and 30 scratch times.
How is he getting better with age?
“No wife, no children…” jokes Rudy Briani, Andreucci’s navigator.
It's the passion; when you win, it's easier to have the motivation to continuePaolo Andreucci on why he's still competing
On a serious note, there’s a few factors at play. Experience still counts for something in rallying. MRF’s product has continued to improve with Andreucci’s input as its most senior development driver, along with highly experienced engineer Fiore Brivio at the helm of the technical team.
But why is he still bothering to put in such a big shift this far into his career, doing tests at the small hours of the morning during a three-day marathon?
“The passion, no? It’s important,” says Andreucci. “It’s the passion; when you win, it’s easier to have the motivation to continue.”
That said, he acknowledges his mental drive can only take him so far. He’s aware that it’s not just the Battistollis and Enrico Oldratis of rallying that he needs to be worried about: “It’s a fight not only with the other drivers but also fighting myself,” he admits.
On the face of it, there’s no-one coming that can live with Andreucci’s pace. But the man himself insists he can be beaten and will be in time – the question for him is when, not if.
“It’s important for me to maintain this concentration because I am 57 years old! The young boys are arriving – slowly, but they’re arriving.”
Looking at his performance in Montalcino last weekend, it’s hard to see when that’s coming.
“He’s so quick and still he’s showing us today when the championship is over what he can do,” said Battistolli.
“I think he’s the most precise person and pragmatic. So it will be, for many years I think, still a hard bone to chew.”
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks – but in Andreucci’s case, he already knows all of them anyway. And don’t call him old, either – with the amount of work he’s still putting in, he’s 57 years young.