Sébastien Loeb’s latest World Rally Championship return has been confirmed, with the nine-time champion lining up in an M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid for next season’s Monte Carlo Rally curtain raiser.
M-Sport had four entries on the list that was released last Friday and, following negotiations between the team, driver, and Red Bull, Loeb has now been announced in the fourth car.
It will be Loeb’s fifth Monte Carlo outing since retiring from full-time WRC competition at the end of 2012, having continued to compete sporadically in the series he dominated in the 2000s.
He entered the event with Citroën in 2013 and 2015, winning on his first appearance as a part-timer, then competed for Hyundai in 2019 and 2020.
“I still enjoy it, doing some rallies sometimes,” Loeb told DirtFish. “I always have fun driving WRC cars.
“I had the opportunity to come back. I tested the car, I enjoyed it. With the new technology and the balance of the car, I find it quite good to drive. So I said: ‘Why not do a few races?’.”
Next year a hybrid ruleset will be introduced to the WRC, ushering in the new breed of Rally1 cars.
Despite the significant regulation change, Loeb – who has tested M-Sport’s Puma twice – does not expect there to be a significant difference between the outgoing machines and the new electrically boosted cars.
“The regulations are more strict on some details like the weight, the gearbox, a few things like this, the suspension travel and that,” Loeb added. “But we have the extra power with the hybrid, so it will depend a bit on how much hybrid we can get in the stages.
“The car’s still fast and I don’t think it will be a big difference compared to the others [the previous generation of World Rally Cars], especially on Tarmac. On gravel I don’t know at the moment.
“The car I tested was good. I don’t know how the other cars are, but the feeling with this one was quite good so I’m looking forward to doing Monte Carlo.”
Loeb will compete alongside Isabelle Galmiche in Monte Carlo, marking the first time he has driven without long-time co-driver Daniel Elena in a WRC event. While the new pairing goes into the event without competition time together, the experience the two have shared has been positive so far.
“We haven’t driven a lot together, but I did some tests with her in the past and the relationship was good,” said Loeb. “She’s someone I’ve known for a long time, she replaced Daniel at tests when he couldn’t come.
“I’m confident that it can work with her, and Daniel has some different things to do now, so that’s how it is, and we’re looking forward to start.”
So far Loeb is only confirmed to do Monte Carlo, but could make further appearances in 2022.
M-Sport managing director Malcolm Wilson told DirtFish: “We’re very excited about the line-up of drivers we have for Monte Carlo and there’s no doubt that Sébastien is going to be a very big asset to Adrien [Fourmaux] and to an extent to Craig [Breen] as well.
“Monte’s not necessarily the event where Craig has the most experience, so having somebody like Séb with us is going to be great. What we really want is a good, strong start to the season and I think we have a good line-up for that.”
Loeb’s return to the WRC was only made possible by Prodrive. The team has an exclusive agreement with Loeb, who competes in the Prodrive-run Bahrain Raid Xtreme and X44 Extreme E teams.
Prodrive chairman David Richards said he was happy to see Loeb benefitting from more competitive seat time in the WRC this season.
“We agreed with Séb that he would benefit from a few more competitive drives in the WRC and that this will ultimately help his Dakar and Extreme E campaigns,” he said.
“We have a busy schedule planned for next year with the BRX and X44 teams, but if he can accommodate a few rounds of the WRC around our program, then it is good for all of us.”
The Dakar Rally, the opening round of the inaugural FIA Cross-Country Rallies World Championship season, runs in Saudi Arabia from January 2-14. Loeb will then have to make it to the south of France before January 20, when the Monte Carlo Rally begins.
“Séb is an amazing talent who has lost none of that competitive spirit and must be one of the favorites to win Dakar in January,” Richards added.
“It will be great for everyone who loves motorsport to see the most successful rally driver of all time back on the WRC stage.”