Malcolm Wilson sat back in his chair and exhaled deeply. He relaxed for the first time in 11 minutes. And 48 seconds. Then he smiled. A very big, wide smile.
M-Sport Ford World Rally Team was back in the lead of a World Rally Championship round.
“He’s some boy, eh…” said Wilson to nobody in particular. The atmosphere in the team’s command center was brave, bullish and full of belief again last Friday in Portugal.
“He’s done 100 kilometers of testing on gravel – that’s all – and he comes here, gets in the car and drives it like that. Some boy.”
Hours later, there was the sport’s flip side. Loeb had smacked the wall, whipped the right-rear off and was sitting on a bank out of the lead and out of action.
Later that evening, I sought Wilson out again and offered commiserations. Wilson’s been around the sport for too long not to know rallying’s rollercoaster nature intimately. He’s a pragmatist and an optimist. But on Friday night he was happy to be a realist.
“Of course it’s disappointing,” he said. “Of course it is. Having a guy like Séb back with us lifts the whole team all over again. It was the same like it was in Monte, he walked into the service park and you could almost see the team raising its game.
“We’ve talked about this before, but when Carlos [Sainz] or Colin [McRae] would walk in, you’d see the guys straighten themselves a little bit, there’s a buzz about the place and it’s like that with Loeb. He’s special.”
More important than his nine titles or his debut win with M-Sport in January, Loeb’s Friday morning performance was a portal for self-belief in the Puma Rally1.
“You’re always going to be asking the question of gravel,” said Wilson. “We knew we had a good car and Monte showed we had a very driveable car with great performance. But that was a different rally to this one. Gravel is so much of what the WRC is about, it was vital to know we have a good car on the loose and that’s exactly what Séb did in Portugal – he showed us what the Puma is capable of.
“This whole team knows now that there’s no rally, no surface that we can’t win on and that’s a very powerful message for all of the guys out there in Portugal with us, but also all the team back in Dovenby.
“It’s easy to forget the size of workforce we have compared with Toyota and Hyundai, we’re really small compared with them – but as a team we’ve built the best car and Séb helped us show the world that in Portugal.”
There are, of course, other drivers other than Loeb and relying wholly on the Frenchman is simply not an option when he’s tackling a limited program.
“We know where we are with the other drivers,” added Wilson. “It wasn’t an easy event for Craig [Breen]. Gus, as we know, loves Portugal and showed some fantastic speed. His time on the first [gravel] stage was great. Gus is really on the right road now.
“As for Adrien [Fourmaux], he did exactly what we asked him to do and exactly what was required of him. Pierre [-Louis Loubet] was there as well, things are looking really encouraging for those guys.”
Which is good, because it’s those guys who carry M-Sport Ford’s torch to the next round in Sardinia. What’s possible on the Italian island?
“Let’s see,” said Wilson. “One thing’s for sure, we know the car’s capable!”