Grip is everything, everywhere. But in Monte Carlo, it can be deceptive. More than ever, Sébastien Loeb was exposed and well aware that things could go horribly wrong if he didn’t make this one stick. He tested the levels of adhesion and went for it. His final act on this year’s season opener was typically impressive.
Who else would even consider a backwards somersault on the podium?
A decade on from his last championship, three years past his last win and 16 months down the road from his last World Rally Championship start, Loeb returned.
Simple. He had a question to answer.
When he departed Monte Carlo two years ago, his crown hadn’t so much slipped as fallen off and been lost to the harbor. He was nowhere. That distant sixth place with Hyundai was part of the reason he returned last week.
Had he lost it? Could he find it?
“This was, one thing that I was always thinking about: how was I slow like hell on Tarmac. I couldn’t understand how I could lose everything in one year.
“Now it seems I didn’t lose everything. I’m happy about that.”
There was always a question mark over Loeb’s form in an Tarmac-trim Hyundai i20, but this year’s Monte Carlo Rally showed the nine-time world champion’s class is beyond question.
He was brilliant. Nothing short of.
Watching him roll the years back was an absolute joy. Even better was the start of the new generation.
Loeb, his arch-rival Sébastien Ogier and the rest of the WRC service park, delivered a spell-binding start to the championship’s hybrid era.
Let’s face it, the 2022 season broke cover under more than the odd question mark. Plenty wondered whether these all-new hybrid cars would even make it through the first day. Ogier reflected that a running joke among the drivers was that a Rally2 car could be the best solution for round one.
How wrong they were. How wrong we almost all were. Almost all. Hyundai Motorsport’s season-opener was pretty desperate.
Twelve months ago Andrea Adamo lambasted his team for what he felt was a decidedly below-par result at the top of the 2021. What on earth would he make of this?
Hyundai’s start aside, the Monaco service park was packed with positives. Let’s go with those.
Loeb’s still got it
Who doubted Loeb could win? I didn’t. Or at least I didn’t until my DirtFish colleague Colin Clark convinced me otherwise. And Clarky’s view on this one was entirely sensible and completely realistic. How could Loeb compete with a field of drivers who had stepped out of their World Rally Cars just a handful of weeks earlier on the Italian side of the Alps?
Except he could.
And how could he sensibly come to Monte with a couple of days’ testing and not as much sleep as the famously sleep-loving Loeb would like courtesy of finishing second on a Saudi Dakar?
Except he could.
And he did.
You don’t win 79 rounds of the World Rally Championship without being a bit special. But Loeb’s rarely better than when he’s on the Monte with a car working well beneath him. Twenty years ago, he rocked the WRC when he delivered a Xsara WRC from the clutches of a misfiring Citroën team to an on-the-road win on these very stages. Two decades down the line, he’s still surprising us. Some of us.
Admittedly, his passage to the podium’s top step was assisted by a penultimate stage puncture for Ogier, but still, Loeb’s eighth Monte win was a result well worthy of an 80th career success on the 90th running of rally in the 50th year of the championship.
And it was all done in the same super-cool, totally laidback, laissez-faire fashion.
We’ve come to learn, however, that Loeb’s relaxed demeanor is disproportionate to the work and effort he’s putting in. He landed from the Middle East on Saturday, tested on Sunday, recced Monday to Wednesday, went fastest on the first shakedown run on Thursday and won on Sunday.
Now that, my friends, is a week in the life of a champion.
But that’s only half the story. Actually, it’s only a third of the story.
By the time you read this, odds are Isabelle Galmiche will be back in school, trying to get Pythagoras theorem to make sense to the children in her math class.
For her, the week has been the dream of dreams. She and Loeb have known each other a long time and she’s been the go-to solution when Daniel Elena didn’t fancy another session of testing. But helping here and there on the odd day of development running is a whole galaxy away from winning the Monte Carlo Rally.
Her last WRC result? Try 24th overall on the 2017 Rally Germany alongside Jean-Michel Raoux in a DS3 WRC. Her last Monte Carlo Rally result? Er… she doesn’t have one. She’s never done it before.
I know, it’s the story that keeps on giving.
M-Sport delivers on another new dawn
You have to go back to 2007 to find the start of a new homologation cycle when M-Sport didn’t take a debut win. Ogier’s 2017 success in the principality was a big deal – the first win for the team since 2012. But somehow this one felt even bigger. Even better.
Eighteen months ago the Wilson household was at a horribly low ebb. Above all the success, above all the glory and the greatness, Malcolm Wilson holds one thing very dear: his workforce. He’s fiercely protective of his workforce and down the years he’s moved heaven and earth to keep them in place.
COVID-19 almost beat him. The global pandemic meant M-Sport reconsidering everything. Forced to make 100 people redundant, Wilson was as low as I can remember seeing him. It was those moments that drove the enormously emotional scenes on Sunday.
With typical candor Wilson told DirtFish: “I never expected to get to this point in my business life and have to go through what I’ve had to go through in the last nearly two years.
“What we’ve gone through, having to lose those people and then asking so much of the people we have left – and them showing so much commitment… it’s incredible. It’s just incredible.”
M-Sport’s technical director Chris Williams has been the man in charge of the development of the Puma.
Buried in a phone-full of messages of congratulations, he struggled for words.
“I don’t know what to say,” he offered, voice cracking. “Two years of f****** hard work. The guys have been brilliant. The team has worked hard. At one point, we’d literally got the purchase orders to start the work as COVID hit.
“Literally two weeks before. And it could have all gone wrong. We just kept the guys, the design team, working flat out through COVID lockdown. We never gave up with the development. It’s been a fantastic team effort to get where we are.
“You always dream it’s going to come true. To replicate what we did in 2017 – we didn’t think we’d do that again. To be able to do it is just fantastic.
“We’re a little bit of a smaller team. We don’t have everything the others have but we’ve had so much support from Ford. The guys at Ford Performance have worked really hard with us, and so closely. We’ve got a few things that we very much do together as a collaboration. They’re so much part of the team nowadays.”
Williams and the rest of the team have measured their nights’ sleep in minutes for much of the last week. The bad news for the team is that he doesn’t see that changing now it’s leading both championships.
“We’ve got a jump on them,” he added. “It’s as simple as that. We need to keep up now and keep ahead of the game. The others will catch up, and catch up bloody fast if they’re not already there. The work doesn’t stop now. This is just the start. We need to deliver the season we did in 2017. The sleepless nights will continue.”
When the payback is a result like this, there will be very few complaining.
And M-Sport’s good news didn’t stop with Loeb last week. We’ll delve deeper into the performances of Craig Breen and Gus Greensmith between here and round two in Sweden, but suffice to say they covered themselves in almost as much glory.
Breen’s fourth consecutive WRC podium was as good as anything that’s gone before it. Absent from the Alps since 2018, the Breen’s preparations went awry when he sent the M-Sport test car down the side of a mountain days before the start.
That undoubtedly impacted on his early running last week, but once he’d dialled the Puma down and locked onto third place he looked rock solid for the podium. That, as much as Loeb’s result, will come as a huge relief to the team.
— M-Sport (@MSportLtd) January 21, 2022
And then there’s Greensmith and his now famous stage win celebrations. And good on him, he deserves them. He improved tremendously through last year and, on the basis of what we saw last week, this could be a big season for him.
And the message from his dad? A straight three-worder: “You f******* beauty.”
No arguments there.