Pierre-Louis Loubet feels he now has the pace to fight with the very best drivers in the World Rally Championship.
Looking ahead to next week’s sixth round in Sardinia, he told DirtFish: “We have the pace now to fight with the guys, so we just need to put everything all together and I am sure we can do a strong result there.
“I’m sure it’s possible. We have shown here [in Portugal] it’s possible and I am sure there we will do the same.”
The question is: is he right?
First, let’s consider and remind ourselves of the context of the Frenchman’s 2023.
Loubet is yet to have a completely clean rally this season, his first as a P1 driver in the WRC.
He’s suffered his fair share of mechanical gremlins, but there have been some notable driver errors too – not least on the recent Rally of Portugal where he saw a good result go begging by breaking his steering on the second morning.
Other mistakes have come in Monte Carlo where he slid and hit the side of a bridge, and in México where he came in too hot to a corner and damaged his suspension – one day on from retiring from another rock-based retirement.
But, as M-Sport team principal Richard Millener recently told DirtFish, none of these have been major errors or wrecks.
“Touch wood he’s not had silly crashes, massive crashes or anything like that,” Millener said.
“México was difficult for him, made a couple of silly mistakes in terms of maybe underestimating the looseness of the road position.
“But again, make the mistake on the first day means you’re first on the road on the second day, too fast into that square left and hit the rockface on the outside which broke the car again.
“Monte Carlo, retired, got it back on the last slippery corner, went off and broke the car there. They’re all silly, small mistakes as opposed to having a huge accident. They’re all easily changed, but it’s finding that balance of trying to be on the pace consistently of the top guys is the hardest battle.”
“I think that’s what he’s trying to find at the moment and going into a new season whatever people tell you your goal is to showcase and show what you’re capable of but running at that pace is often very difficult.”
Sure enough, Loubet has often spoken about trying to produce “good things” this season, and we’re now into a run of rallies which suit him.
He’s only got the one stage win – claimed on the opening stage of Portugal – to his name thus far in 2023, but his speed when there haven’t been any issues has, at times, been impressive.
On that first day in Portugal for example, he was only outside the top four times twice and one of those was because of the small fire breaking out towards the rear of his Puma Rally1.
But Loubet has struggled to keep tabs with the pacesetters consistently.
The closest he has finished to the rally-winning time at any stage this season was in Croatia, where Loubet was seventh – 4m22.6s down on rally winner Elfyn Evans.
Granted there was a small engine problem and a poor tire choice to factor in here, but the closest he got to a stage win was 5.1s. On the Monte his closest time was 6.8s down, Sweden it was 6.5s adrift and México (discounting the 0.7-mile Guanajuato stage) six seconds exactly.
So actually, there is a good degree of consistency here, and it puts him in a similar ballpark to fellow ‘junior’ driver Takamoto Katsuta. But he’s not quite at the level where he’s genuinely challenging the WRC’s frontrunners – Kalle Rovanperä, Ott Tänak et al – on a regular basis.
Even in Portugal, where Loubet was unquestionably rapid, his speed was predominantly down to his advantageous road position. On Saturday, when he was in a similar place to the Hyundais he was fighting on the leaderboard, he dropped 8.3s to Dani Sordo (who had been a car ahead of him on Friday’s running order) on the one stage he completed before retiring.
So, Loubet has perhaps overestimated his own ability for now.
But in Sardinia, who’s to say he can’t be in for a good result? Loubet certainly has good speed considering his lack of experience at this level – he couldn’t realistically be expected to be a consistent frontrunner yet.
And next week’s event offers him a real chance to bag a big result. Once again starting as the last Rally1 cars on an event where road position makes a big difference, if Loubet can make the most of Friday and hang on from there, crucially avoiding any silly mistakes, a podium is a realistic possibility.
But he can also afford to put less pressure on himself in chasing results, according to his boss.
“I think we’re at the point now where we just need to come back 5%, 10%, get some solid results, get the confidence back again, get the partnership with Nicolas [Gilsoul] going well and then look to move forward,” Millener said.