There’s something poetic about the fact Pierre-Louis Loubet finds himself 13th in the World Rally Championship as the season reaches its halfway point.
Thirteen is considered by many to be an unlucky number, and it’s fair to say Loubet has been the unluckiest Rally1 driver of the year so far.
By his own admission he’s not been perfect, but big consequences for small errors have haunted Loubet in 2023.
“I have made some small mistakes but I never did a massive mistake like a crash into a tree or very big, big stuff,” he tells DirtFish.
“But it looks like we had some small mistakes with some big, big consequences. So yeah, a bit tough but I mean… I don’t know if it’s always unlucky because if I was perfect on my side and if we didn’t have any issue with the car a lot of things could be different today, but it’s not the case.
“So what I’ve tried to be focused on, even if all the time it’s not easy, is that I am always able to restart and push.
“I would say Croatia was not really great because the feeling in the car was not good, but when the feeling is there the speed is always not so bad so I try to keep, I would say, the hope on it [to turn around] and I will keep focusing and try to make it work.”
There’s an air of familiarity here for Loubet though, whose WRC career has been far from straightforward.
Even when he was crowned WRC2 champion in 2019, the world barely noticed as another Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo pilot was busy stealing the headlines with WRC2 Pro success.
A Toyota contract and the top class beckoned for a certain Kalle Rovanperä.
Loubet, too, made his way into a World Rally Car but only for three rounds and with a privateer outfit – 2C Compétition.
That led to a more complete season in 2021 but the less said about that the better – the combination of an out-of-date car and some driving errors led to a dismal season which left Loubet questioning if he would be better off working for his mom’s cafe in Corsica instead.
But then came the redemption arc. Specifically, an eight-round deal to drive an M-Sport-supplied Ford Puma Rally1.
Three rallies into the program and Loubet had secured a top-four finish – a result he equaled on the Acropolis as he took his first ever WRC stage win and led an event for the very first time.
No questions were therefore asked when the Frenchman was announced alongside Ott Tänak for a full season at M-Sport this time around.
But perceptions have changed. More is now expected of Loubet – which he is more than aware of.
“Last year it was a bit of, I would say, a surprise that my performance was good to everybody, so the interest was not the same also,” he admits.
But despite the shift in narrative from overperforming driver to frustrating first full season, Loubet is sure he is actually a better driver than he was last year.
“Honestly me, on my side, I feel stronger in terms of the driver I am today,” he says.
“Last year my experience was low, not a lot of time behind the wheel, so OK, I was doing a good performance but I was not as good as today in terms of pure driving.
“So yeah, it’s more difficult today because it’s a difficult series of rallies for me. But I would say [in some ways] it’s less difficult than last year at the end because the fact to be always behind the wheel it’s something very great for a driver, and it’s the very first time that it’s happened to me.
“So on this point it’s good but for sure the very difficult series of rallies doesn’t make stuff easier, you know?”
Loubet’s struggles began as early as the first full day of the championship when his power-steering failed and left him fighting hard just to make the end of the stages.
In Sweden his engine let go, in Croatia he had an issue engaging stage mode, while in Portugal a small fire hampered his pace and in Sardinia a gearbox and then steering problems ended his weekend early.
“We still don’t know exactly [what went wrong],” Loubet says of his Sardinian disaster. “I think the car, it only came back three or four days ago so I don’t know if they have time to analyze what happened to my car at the start of the stage.
“In the morning I had some issue with the water-splash so I lose 10 seconds I think and I was not so far from Lappi and just in front of Neuville. A bit far from Ogier but I think without the water-splash I was able to be closer.
“But yes, what can I say? It’s been a very hard moment. After that gearbox problem, on the last stage on the very fast section I had a small aquaplaning which pushed me a little bit wide and I bent a little bit the steering, and 10 kilometers after I think it broke.
Maybe Pierre Louis Loubet's retirement in Sardegna wasn't a mechanical issue after all…
Footage is from the 2nd pass of Monti Lerno
📸 @wrc_tv_italy on insta pic.twitter.com/9aD3iN4c1t
— Powerslide Podcast (@PowerslidePod) June 7, 2023
“There is a video on the internet (see above) where I crash in the tree but it’s not there at all, it’s on the very fast section and you can hear the small hit and that bends the steering, and 10 kilometers after it broke.”
“But it was a very, very small moment, nothing big. But like I said this year it looks like when you see sometimes where the guys go and nothing happens, it looks like for me there is not so much [margin].”
It’s like the first half of Rovanperä’s title-winning 2022 season in reverse. While Rovanperä was able to flirt with disaster and constantly get away with it, Loubet is always on the wrong side of fortune.
But, as he’s already said, he’s aware that he must shoulder some of the responsibility for his patchy form too.
On the Monte for example, back out with fully functioning power-steering on the Saturday morning, Loubet didn’t make it beyond the day’s first test as he slid into a bridge and damaged his suspension.
And in México, after breaking his steering against a rock on Friday’s first stage, towards the end of Saturday Loubet approached a junction too quickly and again damaged his suspension.
That’s why when asked what the biggest thing he needs to work on is, Loubet pinpoints the ability to keep his head in the game when things go awry.
“I think where I have to work is when things go wrong to not do any mistakes, because it’s happened this year that I was maybe a bit sometimes angry when things were not going my way, and I was doing some small mistakes,” he confesses.
“I never crashed the car I would say, but a mistake is a mistake.
“Where I’m better? I think I’m faster than last year for sure, and I’m happy that even if I have a bad rally before, I’m still able to try to push at the start of the next rally.
“It was quite difficult before Sardinia, I was a bit under pressure from myself because I didn’t know if I was able to push on the very first stage and it looks like the speed was there immediately, so it’s been a relief on this point.”
The pace is the big positive from Loubet’s season so far.
Cynics will be quick to point out that Loubet’s shot at the lead in Portugal and rise to third in Sardinia were purely down to his road position. But it’s not quite that simple.
“Honestly, I don’t think in Sardinia the road position was so, so important,” Loubet argues.
“Ogier was [near] first on the road and the day after he was in an even better position and he wasn’t faster. So, honestly, the performance on Friday was really, really good. Portugal, for sure it helped, but if you look my pace was better on second pass.
“I’m not saying that I’m the best, but I think on this particular rally I think the level is very good now.”
Attention turns to this week’s Safari Rally Kenya – an event neither Loubet, nor new-for-2023 co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul, have any experience of.
As a result, Loubet doesn’t know what to expect but the demanding nature of the event presents him with an opportunity.
“We will see after the recce which strategy we take in terms of pace, what we want to do or not, but it looks like it’s a very, very, very difficult rally. So yeah, need to be very humble against that,” Loubet explains.
“But like I say, I will not try to think too much, just try to drive well, to be clean, no mistakes and hopefully it can be a good result.
“But I think there everything can happen – it’s really a rally where everybody can win! I really think that. Who knows.”
The target for the second phase of 2023 is clear though. Try and reverse his current trend, and grab that maiden podium which has been teasing Loubet of late.
“I was pretty sure that it was happening in Portugal or Sardinia but it looks like it doesn’t want me!” Loubet says.
“He is waiting for me but I don’t know when I will be able to catch him. One day maybe, let’s see.
“I hope that next time you will call me for a podium, not to speak about bad luck!”