M-Sport’s Pierre-Louis Loubet is targeting a campaign of at least 10 events in 2023, saying he needs more frequent seat time to compete against the established factory drivers.
Loubet picked up his first career World Rally Championship stage wins on the Acropolis Rally, briefly taking the lead of the rally from M-Sport team-mate and his rallying idol, Sébastien Loeb.
He went on to equal his career-best finish of fourth after picking up a puncture on Saturday morning, matching his effort from Italy in June.
But to get closer to the leading drivers who outpaced him after his road-order advantage was gone on Saturday, Loubet feels he needs a bigger program of events next season.
“Ten rallies can be great, minimum,” Loubet told DirtFish. “Because seven, it’s too long between rallies. Imagine the last rally was Finland, that was two months [ago]; it’s a lot.”
Loubet has never completed a full WRC season in a top-level car. His 2021 campaign was curtailed after eight events after being hit by a car in Paris and sustaining a broken hip, while he tackled only three rounds in the shortened 2020 season.
“I think now, if I want to progress, I will need to see a bit more one or two years to be a bit more relaxed and be able to take the last step to be a top guy,” he said.
“I know we had some advantage this weekend but we take this advantage to do well. But we had an advantage and if you want to be able to fight with them without advantage, you need to do a bit more driving.”
Though he talked up the need to drive more to draw closer to the pace of Loeb and Hyundai pairing Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville, who had been his closest competitors for the podium, Loubet felt a podium would have been earned on merit without his puncture.
“Honestly, without the puncture of yesterday, I think we deserved the podium,” he said.
“On Saturday we had a lot of small issues with the car. But anyway, no regrets. We enjoyed a lot and it’s been a fantastic race for us. It’s good to show that we have the performance even if we don’t drive like the others.”
Both of Loubet’s class wins during his title-winning WRC2 campaign came at slow, technical gravel rallies: Italy and Portugal.
That meant Loubet had targeted the Acropolis as one of his most promising events of the season, following on from much more subdued performances in Estonia and Finland.
“On the slow rallies I think we showed the pace. Now on fast rallies we just need to do a bit more and we will be able to progress also.”
M-Sport team principal Richard Millener heaped praise on Loubet’s performance as early as Friday afternoon, noting that when Loubet began to suffer power-steering problems he brought the car home safely.
“The last stage of the day was, for me, his strongest,” said Millener. “He had a couple of things that were just niggling a little bit, so he decided to make sure he was here at the end.”
In a season where Ford Puma Rally1s have rarely made the finish line in one piece – whether through driver errors or mechanical gremlins – Loubet has been one of its most consistent performers.
Loubet has the third-highest average score among M-Sport’s five regular drivers; in his six events so far he’s averaged five points, compared to 8.75 for Loeb, 7.7 for Craig Breen, 3.6 for Gus Greensmith and one for Fourmaux.
It marks a huge turnaround from 2021, where Loubet struggled with his customer Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC and managed only one event, Estonia, without retiring.
Malcolm Wilson, M-Sport’s managing director, said that he had made an effort to provide a different environment to help Loubet succeed.
“I could see how he was really struggling in the last couple of years and, from day one, I always wanted to give him that warm family atmosphere and bring him in to be part of the family,” said Wilson.
“Some of the things we’ve done, I believe that’s also helped give him the confidence. We’re all working for him, behind him, to get the results he’s got. For him to get his first fastest time and lead the rally is quite remarkable.”
Only Craig Breen has a contract in place with M-Sport for next season. He signed a two-year deal for 2022 and ’23. The team also hopes to bring Loeb back for further events with the Puma next year.