Sébastien Loeb believes the Ford Puma Rally1 remains capable of winning rallies despite it claiming only one World Rally Championship podium finish since the season-opening rally.
The nine-time world champion gave M-Sport’s Rally1 car a dream debut with victory on the Monte Carlo Rally in January, while team-mate Craig Breen’s third-place finish further boosted confidence in the squad.
It has been slim pickings since then, with Loeb’s best result in his subsequent three appearances being eighth on the Safari Rally. He had been running in the top three in Kenya until an engine fire put him out and he returned under restart regulations.
Loeb led before retiring on both his other appearances this year, on Rally Portugal and last weekend’s Acropolis Rally. He hit a wall in Portugal, then suffered turbo failure when he restarted the following day, while he was sidelined by an alternator problem in Greece.
The Puma’s only other podium finish came on June’s Rally Italy, when Breen finished second. Part-time driver Pierre-Louis Loubet may have added to the tally on the Acropolis but for a puncture while lying third, having led for a spell the previous day.
But despite the lack of results, Loeb feels the Puma remains capable of challenging for victory on a regular basis.
“I always said I had a good feeling with the car, and I enjoy driving it. It really suits my driving style and seems to Pierre-Louis also, so we were able to make some really good times,” he told DirtFish after the first full day of Acropolis.
Reflecting on his season to date after retiring the next day, Loeb said: “I was leading every rally that I did. So, for me, just coming back a few years later and to be able to lead all the rallies I did I think is not too bad, uh?”
He added: “It’s what I say since the beginning. I feel well in the car, and I think the car has good potential and I feel I like to drive the car; I enjoy.”
Asked why M-Sport’s other drivers appeared to be struggling to produce the same level of performance from the car as the 80-time WRC event winner, Loeb responded: “Loubet was able, uh?”
He added: “I think we all have the same setup, I imagine, because it’s no secret between us. I’m quite sure Loubet has a really similar setup to me; the other ones I don’t know exactly.
“Because with Loubet we speak sometimes after the test and I told him: ‘Maybe I will try this, I didn’t have the time to test if you want to try it tomorrow.’”
“I think [the others] don’t ask me because they don’t need, and I think they know everything about the setup we are using. The car suits my driving, I am happy with the car, so I don’t complain.
“Here, no driver is complaining about the speed of the car. Everybody is happy with the car, but the level of the world championship is high so when you have Tänak, Neuville, Rovanperä and drivers like this to beat…”
M-Sport’s lower budget limits its development potential compared with the rival Hyundai and Toyota operations. Loeb, however, is adamant that the Puma Rally1 remains capable of winning on the world stage, but it is being held back by reliability issues.
If he didn’t believe that he could keep winning, Loeb wouldn’t still be competing in the WRC at the age of 48 with all the commitments that entails – even on a part-time basis.
“I think all the cars are able to win,” said Loeb. “I think it’s really close between the cars and so I’m happy with the car. And that motivates me to do some rallies because I feel good in it. We just need to be able to finish.
He added: “To take so many risks and put so much effort is what you have to do, because WRC is very demanding with the recce, the preparation, the videos…
“It’s not like arriving in Extreme E, waiting and then sitting in the car for five minutes. It’s a lot of preparation and so if I do that it’s because I’m motivated to do it.
“When I stopped with Hyundai, I didn’t imagine I would come back. Finally, I had again another opportunity. I liked the car since the first test I did with the car, so I decided to try, and finally the feeling worked.”