Did Loeb kill off surface specialists in the WRC?

Before Loeb's dominant era, drivers would be employed by teams for certain rallies

Rallye de France Tour De Corse

As the final stage of Rally Spain got underway, the battle for the 2003 drivers’ crown was approaching fever pitch. But while the biggest prize of them all was still up for grabs, the battle for top honors this particular weekend had come down to two men: Sébastien Loeb and Gilles Panizzi.

Citroën superstar Loeb had led the way for much of the event, but established Tarmac king Panizzi was never too far adrift. With the rain now lashing down, the old guard’s experience and tactical acumen began to tell. Loeb went for slick tires while Panizzi ran an intermediate.

The former limped to the end of the stage and dropped 40 seconds in the process; Panizzi slipped by to claim his seventh and final career victory. A momentous win which has only grown more significant over time.

Rally Catalunya

Spain 2003 marked the last time Loeb lost a pure Tarmac event in a straight fight. Every subsequent defeat (of which there were precious few) was due to bad luck, rare mistakes or, in the case of Corsica 2004, Loeb having no reason to push (the Frenchman had a maiden title to secure that particular weekend).

It’s safe to say that throughout his most illustrious of careers, Loeb changed the face of rallying in more ways than one, but one of his more obscure contributions to the World Rally Championship was the part he played in the eradication of surface specialists.

At the turn of the millennium the likes of Sweden, Spain, Corsica and Safari were often dominated by part-time drivers who knew these events better than anyone. There was the aforementioned asphalt ace Panizzi, Kenneth Eriksson who was always a force to be reckoned with on snow, and the late Philippe Bugalski, whose mastery of the black stuff was so absolute, he managed to clock back-to-back victories in an F2 kit car in 1999. Fast forward 20 years and these types of drivers are nowhere to be seen.

Rally de Catalunya Lloret de Mar (ESP) 19-24 04 1999

All five of Rally Sweden’s non-Nordic winners have done so since 2004, while the number of non-Nordic winners in Finland has ballooned from four in 2008 to eight in 2023.

But why? Why have surface specialists faded into obscurity and what, you may ask, has any of this to do with Sébastien Loeb? The answer lies in the very factors that made him great in the first place.

The Loeb-Citroën synthesis was as formidable as it was unprecedented. Never before had a works team gone to such great lengths to cater to a specific driving style. Unlike most of his predecessors, who would hurl their cars into lurid slides in the hope of scrubbing off enough speed to get round the corner, Loeb prioritized exit speed.

A long-time lover of sealed surfaces, Loeb would exit each corner in as straight a line as possible, so as to get on the throttle that much earlier. A measured approach which, although lacking in spectacle, was undeniably efficient.

It would be inaccurate to suggest that Loeb invented this technique – both Richard Burns and Walter Röhrl were renowned for similar circuit-esque precision. But whereas they, broadly speaking, made the best of what they had, Loeb’s team, engineers and even pacenotes were all geared towards enhancing his particular approach.

Rally of Argentina Cordoba (ARG) 15-18 07 2004

A potent combination that was quick to yield results. In 2004, Loeb, having never won a non-Tarmac event, popped his loose surface cherry in Sweden (the first time a non-Nordic driver had triumphed on the white stuff).

A first gravel win in Cyprus soon followed and from that point on the die was cast. Every combination of ice, snow, Tarmac or gravel was now within the Frenchman’s grasp and the opposition soon realized that mastery of every surface was essential if they were to get anywhere near the Loeb-Citroën partnership.

Other drivers had proven competent on all surfaces in the past – take Markku Alén for example – but nobody had done it with the same ease and blistering consistency that Loeb possessed.

Rally Catalunya-Costa Daurada 27-30/10/2005

To see the full extent of Loeb’s impact on the WRC you need only look at the sport’s most recent frontrunners. Ott Tänak, Thierry Neuville, Sébastien Ogier, Elfyn Evans and reigning world champion, Kalle Rovanperä, have all won multiple times on every surface.

Juxtapose that with Marcus Grönholm whose sole Tarmac win came at the Monte Carlo Rally in 2006 (a direct result of Loeb going off on the first day) and it’s safe to say that to be world champion, you now have no choice but to win on every surface.

A development we can attribute, at least in part, to Sébastien Loeb and Citroën.

Words:Hamir Thapar