From Dakar to WRC: Loeb’s intense January

Straight after finishing second on the Dakar Rally, Sébastien Loeb travels to France today for his final test ahead of the Monte

Sebastien Loeb

Saturday morning’s Saudia flight SV237 felt very early for one passenger. Seated up near the nose, this particular Frenchman was probably asleep before wheels up out of Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport.

Driving flat chat for 12 of the previous 13 days through the desert is enough to earn anybody a Saturday morning lie-in. Except Sébastien Loeb.

After finishing the Saudi Arabian adventure a superb second, Loeb parked the Prodrive-built BRX Hunter, headed for the team debrief and celebration before getting his head down for a couple of hours.

The nine-time World Rally Champion’s loathing of the alarm clock has been well documented down the years, but a couple of industrial strength espressos would help encourage him on a sunrise ride from downtown to the airport.

Seat. And sleep.

Landing into Geneva airport just before two in the afternoon would mean enough time to head home for a shower and change of bag before he’s out of the door and set south across the Swiss-French border, destination Gap.

Sleep. And seat.

Sebastien Loeb (FRA), X44

This time in a Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid. Gone is the desert charger which he’s made his home for the last fortnight, replaced by a cutting edge World Rally Championship challenger – the same one Craig Breen tipped over the edge just four days earlier.

Loeb has run the Ford for two days already, but this is his opportunity to dial the car into what he needs for his M-Sport debut on a rally he’s won seven times already. It’s also a moment to say hello to Isabelle Galmiche, his co-driver on the Monte.

He knows Isabelle well, she’s done gravel notes for him in the past. But this is still quite a moment, the first time in 181 WRC starts that anybody other than Daniel Elena has called Loeb’s notes at the highest level.

In a matter of hours, Loeb’s gone from the world’s greatest motorsport marathon to the most famous rally in the world.

Sebastien Loeb

Both rallies, but poles apart in terms of conditions and approach. And with no respite between.

Test done, Loeb joins his M-Sport team-mates Breen, Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux in a fleet of Ford Focus RS recce cars bound for the hills and practice on Monday. The recce runs until Wednesday.

Thursday morning, 0930 sharp and it’s hello shakedown.

That evening, six days after stopping the clocks in the Hunter, he’ll start them again in the Puma.

For the following three days, the alarm clocks start with fours, fives and sixes. It’s fair to say, the Alsatian will sleep well Sunday night.

“It’s a busy start to the year for him,” smiles M-Sport team principal Richard Millener. “In fairness, he knew what he was signing up for. I’m sure he’ll get his head down and get some sleep where he can.

“I don’t think anybody would be under any illusions about this being the perfect preparation for Monte, but let’s not forget this is Sébastien Loeb we’re talking about. He’s done this a few times before, he knows what it’s all about and if there’s any driver who can walk into the event in this way it’s him.

“At the same time – and I want you to be very, very careful with this because I’m 100% not saying this year’s Dakar wasn’t tough, it was – it probably would be a different question if he’d been sleeping in the bivouac every night somewhere in South America. Or he’d been stranded out in the desert sleeping in the car in the middle of Africa.”

Much as the world wants to talk about an all-Sébastien French fight, that might be a big ask for Loeb.

Ogier comes to the start off the back of landing an eighth world title in Monza just weeks ago. The Toyota man driver in the mountains 12 months ago and starts as favorite next week. Loeb hasn’t done the Monte for two years and hasn’t challenged for the championship in a decade.

“This is the Monte Carlo Rally,” said Millener. “You know as well as I know, anything can happen in that week. Anything. OK, the conditions are looking a little bit drier and more consistent than in some years, but there are still so many variables. Pretty much any driver in a [Rally1] car is in with a shot at the win.

“In terms of preparation and therefore potential pace, I think a podium would be a really good result for him.”

A second podium in nine days would definitely warrant a Monday morning lie-in.