Rally Italy. Coiluna – Loelle. Second pass. Saturday afternoon. Two positions are still up for grabs: third and fifth.
Two M-Sport drivers are in opposition positions: the hunter and the hunted. Pierre-Louis Loubet had started the day battling Craig Breen and Hyundai’s Dani Sordo for podium places. Loubet had slipped backwards slightly but was still within touching distance of Sordo. 13.5 seconds was hardly an insurmountable gap.
Adrien Fourmaux meanwhile had the championship leader breathing down his neck. Kalle Rovanperä had just cut the deficit to 9.3s.
Loubet may have been the second-best Ford Puma in the standings at that moment but it was the third one that really mattered. With Gus Greensmith down in eighth, it was Fourmaux on duty to bank manufacturers’ points. Loubet, showing up midway through the season with no prior testing, was in effect a customer driver, not a fully-blown factory M-Sport pedaler.
But what happened an hour later begs the question – should he be? Perhaps it’s time to consider appending the little ‘M’ next to Loubet’s name in entry lists. The one that bestows the responsibility of representing the team where it matters – in the championship classification.
What each Puma driver said at the end of that Coiluna – Loelle said couldn’t have been further apart.
Fourmaux had lost time earlier in the day with a puncture. In theory, running in fifth over two minutes off the top spot wasn’t what his pace had deserved.
But that’s where he found himself. And with Rovanperä closing in behind, he wasn’t going to let himself lose even more ground.
“I can see that he is pushing,” said Fourmaux of his Toyota rival. “That’s good. But I think we still have some time for the next stage. So we will see.
“For sure it will be interesting to stay in front of him for tomorrow but we will see. Anyway, I’m happy with my day.”
Except he did not stay in front of him. Instead, Fourmaux found a hedgerow that wrecked the front end of his Puma and led to his retirement.
It was left to Greensmith, running behind both Rovanperä and the solo Toyota Next Generation car belonging to Takamoto Katsuta, to pick up the pieces.
As for Loubet, it would have been tempting to push on with Sordo barely more than 10 seconds up the road and a maiden WRC podium on offer.
After a miserable and confidence-destroying two years in the customer 2017-spec Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, this was a golden opportunity to remind everyone that he’d become WRC2 champion three years ago on pure merit.
“I know it can be nice,” confessed Loubet.
“But, you know, we know what our target is and I don’t want to change my philosophy because Sordo is in front. I continue my way, with my feeling, and we will see.”
He stuck to the plan. A calm and straightforward drive to the finish wrapped up Loubet’s best-ever WRC result by some margin. Not only was he the second-best Puma at the finish, he’d been vying to be the top M-Sport driver from the get-go, trading places with Breen repeatedly in the early phase of the rally.
There were zero regrets when Loubet pulled into the rally’s final time control in Alghero.
“Honestly, I was not at my maximum,” We rarely tried to [push hard] but I think it was the same for everybody at the end. No one pushed at the maximum, because on a rally like this on the Saturday, if you push I think the car will not survive.”
Indeed, one Puma did not survive. One of the ones nominated to score manufacturers’ points.
For the second round in a row, however, Loubet’s Ford did make the finish in one piece. And in Portugal, he’d been the best-placed M-Sport car of all.
At this point, it must be surely a case of when, not if, Loubet gets that coveted letter M next to his name.