The 2022 World Rally Championship season is all about the future with the transition to hybrid power and the reigning champion’s partial exit after winning eight of the last nine seasons.
And that’s where Pierre-Louis Loubet’s eyes are firmly fixed: the future. After a torrid year-and-a-half with 2C Competition in a Hyundai, the 24-year-old has secured a seven-round program in an M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 – starting with Rally Croatia.
Although announced last Friday, it’s a deal Loubet admits was first discussed “a very long time ago” and he’s unsurprisingly tremendously excited by it.
“I think it was the best choice,” he tells DirtFish, “and last year [when we were discussing] we didn’t know how good the car would be, but we always speak with M-Sport from the beginning of my career, I was there in 2017, so I always had a good contact with them so to be able to be part of the team this year, it’s amazing.
“For sure what I saw on the Monte was amazing, so I’m super happy to see all of these things. I am hoping to do well and I will have everything in my hands to do a good job I think.”
The question that lingers is: can he? Can Loubet do a good job this year?
It’s certainly more than fair to question Loubet’s capabilities following his disastrous 2020 and ’21 campaigns that rapidly undid any strong reputation he had constructed for himself.
In 11 starts with an i20 Coupe WRC, he only scored points twice. There were far too many crashes and incidents that upset any momentum that he tried to build.
But form is fickle. Loubet’s first outing in a World Rally Car – Rally di Roma 2020 – drew widespread praise, and before that he’d just won the 2019 WRC2 title. He’s therefore a very good driver; circumstances just played against him with an out-of-date car and various other issues last season.
“When you see the results [last year], they were bad, this is true,” he says.
“I don’t care about what the people think about me because I know how it was, only me and my close partners know how it was, so what the public say honestly I don’t care because they don’t know.
“But yes I think I can do it, I feel it. When I was in the best car in WRC2, OK it was only WRC2 but I was able to win, like in Finland 2019 I was able to be very close to Kalle [Rovanperä]. On a rally like this it was a bit special for a French guy.
“I know if I have the feeling with the car and everything is going well I’m sure I can do some good things, so we will see.
“But like I told you, when you have everything like this year for me with a good car, a good team, I have to be focused on the only thing and that’s my driving which is really good.
“Honestly we have to start again, it’s a new start. We did not make the best choice for my career the last two years and now I think I am in the best condition so I’m really happy for that.”
Loubet has to get 2022 right if he wants a long-term career in the WRC, but he no longer has any handicaps either.
When you see what [Loeb] was doing in the Hyundai and what he is doing now, it's good.Loeb's Monte win is giving Loubet reason to be optimistic
The 2C Compétition Hyundai chapter of his career is evidently one he’s keen to forget, but he’s put himself in the best place to let the rest of us forget too.
Malcolm Wilson has a stellar reputation for developing young drivers, M-Sport quite clearly has a competitive car and Loubet has a well-structured program that should help him try and shine.
After Croatia in April, Loubet will do the next two rounds in Portugal and Sardinia before skipping the trip to Kenya and returning for Estonia, Finland, the to-be-confirmed event in August and the Acropolis Rally in Greece.
Forgoing any trips outside of Europe, Loubet will skip the journey down under to New Zealand, ending his season on the next round in Spain while his rivals head to Japan for their season finale.
These are all rallies Loubet has done at least once before – only Finland and Spain not in a top-class car – which means he can pour all of his efforts into maximizing individual results.
“Honestly if it was possible to do 10 [rallies] I prefer to do 10 because you need to drive in this type of car,” he admits, “but I think seven rounds it’s fine to be focused on every one and I will have time to prepare well, so I think it’s a very good compromise.
“For sure I don’t think about the championship but anyway last year I was doing more races and in the championship it was a disaster completely, so I don’t know if the championship is so important at this point in my career, we will see in the future.
“But for the moment I have to be focused on doing some good results in a WRC [Rally1] car, this is the most important.”
What would represent a good season for Loubet? He himself isn’t completely sure – saying “I don’t know what for me will be good” – but climbing onto the pace of his team-mates Craig Breen, Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux would certainly be a good start.
“This is what I have to do, but I think for sure to be with my team-mates but to be able to be at 100% all the time, this is my target. And to feel comfortable to push; it’s a long time since I felt like that in a rally car.”
Loubet is yet to test the Puma Rally1 – “not yet, soon” is his enthusiastic response to DirtFish’s question on the subject. He’ll also be competing with another new co-driver (their identity will be announced next week) admitting “I wanted to change” after spells with both Vincent Landais and Florian Haut-Labourdette last year.
In the meantime Loubet plans “to do some tests in an R5 car, I think with a French team, just to go back in the rally car because it’s quite a long time that I didn’t drive a rally car”. He is also “working on it to do a race” before Croatia “and I hope that would be possible”.
The pressure will firmly be on when he does finally make his first Rally1 appearance in two-and-a-half months – there’ll certainly be nowhere to hide – but Loubet isn’t fazed. He’s audibly relaxed, content and at peace with himself knowing that only he can influence the trajectory of his WRC career now.
“To start with such new and nice things like this it’s amazing for me,” he says. “If you told me that last year it was completely impossible, so I’m super happy.”
And if nothing else, recent form from a certain Sébastien Loeb indicates that the move from a Hyundai to an M-Sport Ford can prove to be quite a successful one.
“If it can be the same thing I sign now, I can win in Croatia!,” Loubet laughs.
“I’m joking, but when you see what he was doing in the Hyundai and what he is doing now, it’s good.
“So we will see, I hope it will be a big step in my career now.”
Loubet has reached for the reset button at a vital time. Another year of errors and forgettable performances would have suffocated his career, but now he has the chance to release all of that negative energy and prove what he is truly capable of with a car and team he feels happy with.