Pragmatism. Sadly, it’s a necessary currency for M-Sport of late. Its means are limited compared to the financial might of Toyota and Hyundai.
It’s made all this fanciful, long-running chatter of Ott Tänak making a glorious return to Dovenby Hall all a bit unrealistic. The question remains: who’s going to foot the bill?
M-Sport’s ideal signing in this off-season is not Tänak – though I’ll happily eat those words if the 2019 world champion is willing to forgo a champion’s paycheck to sit in a Puma.
Back to reality now. Ideal signing, yes.
I’ve honestly been a little surprised the rumor mill hasn’t been buzzing with talk of Loubet getting one of M-Sport’s three full-time points-scoring seats next season. It seems like such an obvious choice that it’s strange no-one’s talking about it.
Look at what Loubet brings to the table and you’ll notice that, actually, he ticks every box in the M-Sport checklist for new signings.
Firstly, the credentials. After Loubet’s horrendous 2021 season it’s easy to forget he earned a shot at the big leagues on merit by winning the WRC2 title. But consider also what’s come since – he’s already on the traditional M-Sport junior driver trajectory.
Tänak did it. Elfyn Evans did it. Made the step up, hit a brick wall, was forced to rebuild and come back stronger.
Loubet’s already done that bit. Seasons can’t get much worse than his spell with 2C in 2021. Aboard the Frankenhyundai, as his chassis was dubbed (for being made out of different bits of the older factory i20s), he finished once in eight attempts, then was run over by a car while cycling in Paris, ending his season on the spot.
It didn’t look like there was much of a way back from such a disaster. It was surely fatal for his chances of making it as a professional rally driver. Frankly, after a season like that, I’d be questioning how much more I could take.
But that’s the difference between me and Loubet. Instead of wasting time mulling over a season littered with disaster, he got to work building a new program for 2022 and got himself into a Ford Puma.
What he did when sat in the driver’s seat of that car is something none of his team-mates have managed with any meaningful consistency all season – get the car to the finish line without crashing it into things.
Doesn’t sound like much of a high bar does it. Go back, look at the results sheets and have a think. To finish first, first you mush finish, and all that.
That on its own is not enough, of course. More promising is the development curve. What was clear from his WRC2 stint was that rough gravel rallies are his forte – and on those he gave Craig Breen a run for his money out of the box.
In a market where pragmatism is a valuable currency, Loubet appears to be a bankable asset
Yes, there were mistakes. But crucially they were small ones – a little spin from over-rotating on entry, a slow slide into the bushes that he can still reverse out of in one piece. Not the airplane accidents piloted by his compatriot Adrien Fourmaux or the string of rally-ending errors from his senior team-mates Breen and Greensmith.
His only real black mark was Estonia, where he hit a rock and broke the suspension on the final day. His only other retirements were car-induced (Finland) or due to running out of spare tires (Croatia).
There is, of course, the ultimate sweetener in all of this – money. He has solid commercial backing.
Loubet appears likely to have enough support to do the European season off his own back. The flyaways are unsurprisingly a bit of a stretch. That, perhaps, is where it’s worth taking the hit – if Loubet can continue to follow the learning curve he’s been on this year, having every round of the season in his calendar will make a difference.
It’s perhaps not the piece of the lineup puzzle M-Sport fans will be the most excited to see being assembled. But it seems like an important one. After witnessing car after car being smashed to bits, M-Sport needs a driver with some potential, that’s showing signs of progression, that can support the team financially, all while actually finishing some rallies.
It doesn’t sound like much. Based on how this year has gone, it very much is.
In a market where pragmatism is a valuable currency, Loubet appears to be a bankable asset.