September 2020. It all looked to be over. Sébastien Loeb, the most successful driver in World Rally Championship history, stood on the Rally Turkey podium. It was the end of the road for his brief dalliance with Hyundai – and, perhaps, his WRC career.
Third place was, in some ways, a sweet relief after a disastrous end to the Monte earlier that year. A tire gamble gone wrong sent him tumbling down the order and he could muster only sixth place by the end.
Loeb being on the podium to cap off his glittering career sounds good on paper. But it didn’t feel right. Here was the nine-time world champion signing off what looked to have been the final phase of his career with a two-year stint that yielded two third places and some points finishes.
This ending was not befitting what had come before. He’d reminded everyone what he could do with a stunning Rally Spain win in 2018, only to spend most of the next two years simply being a support act.
That final Monte with Hyundai had made the maestro doubt his own magic. From the outside, it was easy to suggest that Loeb was simply past it, that he’d hung around too long and the one thing that none of us can avoid had finally caught up with him: time.
His Hyundai stint looked to be a reminder that, just like the rest of us, he was human too. And when the helmet came off, he did the most human thing of all – he began to doubt himself. After that disastrous Monte, he believed his days of being a WRC winner on the black stuff were over.
“It was one thing I was always thinking about: I didn’t know why when I did my comeback with Citroën in Catalunya, the next year I finished the gravel leading the rally and then I was slow like hell on Tarmac,” Loeb told DirtFish two years on from his Monte disaster.
“I never understood how I could lose everything in one year.”
By his second season with Hyundai, he’d effectively become a second choice for its third seat behind Dani Sordo – the man who’d spent many years being his number two at Citroën.
Hanging around to try and finish on a high was not going to work. It was better to bow out with a bit of silverware rather than continue to struggle.
“When I stopped with Hyundai, I didn’t imagine I would come back,” he said.
But Loeb has always had a hard time staying away. No matter what else has taken his attention away from the WRC – touring cars, rallycross, rally-raid – the question has always ended up being when, rather than if, he would return.
If a phone call came, he was still willing to answer. Especially if it was from M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson.
And thank goodness Malcolm picked up his phone.
M-Sport got what it wanted out of Loeb’s second WRC comeback: showing that it was back in business. Those two years of misery plodding around near the back with minimal returns could be put behind it.
Loeb too got what he wanted. Those doubts that lingered about his own ability potentially fading were gone.
“I didn’t know if I can [win], no. I didn’t even think that,” he said after his stunning Monte 2022 win. And he meant every word of it.
Look at his two-year stint with Hyundai with a calculator and it appears more productive than his bit-part season with M-Sport. He averaged 9.37 points per event during 2019-2020. At M-Sport, it’s been 8.75. But this time he’s turned up four times and led four times. That’s the Citroën-era Loeb we thought we’d have until the very end.
Loeb at Hyundai did not look like Loeb at all. It was strange to watch. Battling tooth and nail to score a fourth or fifth place was not what anyone, least of all the man himself, wanted. No wonder he felt like he’d lost everything, as he’d put it – it wasn’t a big leap for fans to think something similar.
Turning up and doing a tidy, efficient job to support a manufacturers’ title bid is not the ending we were supposed to get. He was the protagonist for so long – and in any story, the protagonist is supposed to have a happy ending.
Perhaps it’s selfish to think of ourselves in all of this and not Séb himself. This is his life and not ours, after all. But it was hard not to make it about us.
We fight against time every day. As we get old, our brains lose a little of their sharpness. Thinking and reactions take a split second longer. The physical effort we exert takes a little more out of us. But we want to believe that we can find an exception, a get-out – that somehow we’ll still be able to do everything our 20-year-old selves wanted once we reach 50.
Loeb had made a living out of being impossibly good for a very long time – but even he appeared to have succumbed to the relentless ticking of the clock. Knowing that even those who reach the pinnacle of human achievement in their raison d’être will eventually fade away was difficult to stomach. What hope do the rest of us distinctly more average folks have if the nine-time world champion bowed out thinking he’d lost it?
Mercifully, it transpires the final chapter had not been written. Every good story needs a galling plot twist before delivering its triumphant ending.
Perhaps they’d have hoped for more silverware but, all things considered, M-Sport and Loeb have both won out of Loeb’s 2022 comeback. Both reminded the world – and themselves – that the best times weren’t firmly in the past. We, the audience, got what we needed too. 2020, a thoroughly miserable year all around, can be forgotten. Banished to the footnotes.
Whenever Loeb does decide he’s finished for good, maybe it won’t end with a win or even a podium. This time, though, it won’t matter what the final number on the scoreboard is. We’ll know he never got too old. That he never lost it. That time is not always the all-conquering foe that tells us when to stop, rather than us deciding when we’re ready.
“Now it seems I didn’t lose everything, so I’m happy about that,” Loeb said succinctly after his Monte victory this year.
Us too, Séb. Us too.