Sébastien Loeb’s deal to drive for Lewis Hamilton’s X44 Extreme E team means the nine-time World Rally Champion will add another string to his bow come the start of the electric off-road racing series’ inaugural season next March.
We’ve already outlined some of the merits that will make Loeb and the X44 team favorites. But to explore what David Evans describes as Loeb’s “ability to get into something and make it go quickly instantly” in more depth, we’ve picked out six examples where the 46-year-old has shone from the get-go.
World Rally Championship
While some rally drivers are born into rally-mad families and begin sliding rally cars as soon as they can touch the pedals, Loeb was a late bloomer. He was practicing and succeeding in another sport: gymnastics. Indeed, Loeb wouldn’t get the chance to do his first rally until he was 23 years old – three years older than current Toyota starlet Kalle Rovanperä is now after one (semi-) full season in the WRC!
But it quickly became clear Loeb was no ordinary driver. He rose through the ranks in France, making his name in the Citroën Trophy before tackling the French Rally Championship in a Citroën Saxo in 1999. That led to his WRC call-up with the French national team for Rally Spain, and he was joint fastest in class on his very first stage.
His first outright stage win came on SS5, and he was running in second place in the A6 class before crashing at the end of the first day. He bounced back by dominating his class on the Tour de Corse and Rally Italy Sanremo in the Saxo Kit Car.
Then in 2000, Loeb took an incredible third overall in a two-wheel-drive car in the French gravel series. His WRC return was similarly epic, fighting at the front of the A6 class on Rally Finland on the opening day before his Saxo broke down.
He was down on funds, but the support of Didier Auriol enabled him to make his World Rally Car debut in his fellow Frenchman’s old Toyota Corolla WRC for his home WRC event, the Tour de Corse. Ninth place and two top-six stage times were eye-catching, as was another solid 10th place in Sanremo before he returned to driving Saxos.
This was a sign of things to come. Loeb won the Junior WRC and the French Rally Championship in 2001 and obliterated his opposition, so was subsequently handed the keys to a Xsara WRC for Sanremo.
Taking his first batch of stage wins, Loeb finished just 11.4 seconds down on Gilles Panizzi’s Peugeot 206 WRC which, at the time, was the undisputed asphalt package. A year later he’d be a rally winner; three years later, a World Rally Champion. He held onto that crown for another eight years.
Le Mans 24 Hours
Loeb’s first attempt at circuit racing was in an MGF, and he was a winner in silhouette cars in France before he was thrown straight into the Le Mans 24 Hours – not long after competing on Rally Turkey – in 2005 in a top-class Pescarolo-Judd C60.
He shared the prototype sportscar with Eric Hélary and Soheil Ayari, and was following in the footsteps of his Citroën Racing team principal Guy Frequelin, who had taken part in the legendary race five times before becoming the man behind Loeb’s record-breaking WRC domination.
But the WRC commitments meant Loeb only managed 10 laps in the wet on the Circuit de la Sarthe before competitive action started, and there were questions on how prepared a man more used to gravel would be when lapping traffic on a motorway in the middle of the night. But Loeb was Loeb; he had the talent, and he also had a suitable games console to learn the circuit a little more before the race.
He’d also tested the car at Formula 1 venues Paul Ricard and Magny-Cours before Le Mans, and team boss Henri Pescarolo knew Loeb would be on the pace. It was just a question of how he adapted to the race’s specific demands.
His first flying lap, a 3m41.693s, more than proved the pace but still left the rest in doubt. At first Loeb was doing too much left-foot braking on his stint, then he ended up using more fuel than his team-mates as a result, but everyone in the Pescarolo team was impressed by his debut.
Loeb didn’t get to claim he’d finished the race after repairs from a crash by Ayari proved unfruitful, but he was invited back in 2006 and finished second overall.
Formula 1 tests
It’s clear from this list that Loeb can drive pretty much anything adeptly, and open-wheel cars are no exception. The only real exception is that while he has Formula 1 testing experience, he never got to race in the so-called ‘pinnacle of motorsport’.
After a brief demonstration run in a Renault at the end of 2007 as part of a car swap with Heikki Kovalainen, Loeb was given an official outing with Red Bull one year later.
The energy drinks company put Loeb in an F1 car as a prize for winning his fifth WRC title and he got another private run at Silverstone (pictured above), before joining the F1 field proper for a group post-season test at Barcelona.
Loeb’s best time around the 2.9-mile Spanish Grand Prix track was a 1m22.503s. That was just 1.740s off Takuma Sato’s fastest time in the similar Toro Rosso machine, and less than two tenths off Robert Kubica – who not only won that year’s Canadian Grand Prix, but was a championship contender throughout much of the year too.
Loeb only ran on the first day of the three-day test, handing the car over to Sebastian Vettel for days two and three, where he topped the timesheets with a 1m19.295s by the end of the test.
The 3.2s gap between Loeb and Vettel might appear large, but given Loeb had never driven an F1 car in such a setting before then, it was mightily impressive. His time was also faster than several seasoned race and test veterans like Renault’s Giancarlo Fisichella, a three-time grand prix winner, Pedro de la Rosa of world champion team McLaren, and BMW Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld.
Loeb’s strong performance in the Barcelona test immediately set tongues wagging over a potential F1 switch for the rally veteran. That was all set to take place at the 2009 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, until the FIA stepped in and refused to grant him the necessary license because of his lack of extensive open-wheel experience.
Loeb spent three years competing in the World Rallycross championship from 2016-18, but it was the Global Rallycross championship in which he made his discipline debut way back in 2012.
Challenged by fellow Red Bull athlete Travis Pastrana, Loeb arrived at X Games in Los Angeles mere days after winning Rally New Zealand and, despite being unfamiliar with the event and the competition, the then eight-time WRC champion was only interested in one thing: winning.
He had the tools at his disposal, too: a 545bhp Citroën DS3 co-developed by the French firm’s Racing division and rallycross outfit Hansen Motorsport.
Loeb wasted no time in showing his hand, absolutely dominating his heat. That gave him a front-row starting spot for the 10-car, six-lap final. He instantly took off into the lead and comfortably led every lap to add yet another trophy to his bustling cabinet.
World Touring Car Championship
Though by the time Loeb began his spell in the World Touring Car Championship he was a long way beyond being a circuit-racing novice, there was a degree of uncertainty about how he might compare to his team-mates at Citroën – which was new to the championship for 2014.
There need not have been much doubt. Though he was headed home by team-mate José María López in the opening race of the season in Marrakech, Loeb gave the future WTCC dominator a run for his money in qualifying, ending up just 0.115s down, then stayed on his tail as Citroën began a new era with aero-dependent WTCC cars with a commanding 1-2-3.
It didn’t take long for Loeb to join the winners’ circle either, as he won the reversed-grid second race in Morocco from ninth. A red flag that claimed the C-Elysée of team-mate Yvan Muller aided Loeb’s cause, but victory well and truly underlined his circuit-racing credentials.
Loeb also briefly headed the championship that year, with second place in race one at the next round at Paul Ricard elevating him above López. That might seem like a small footnote to make a point of, but in doing so Loeb became the first of only two drivers (the other being Tiago Monteiro two years later) to head López at any point during three years of Citroën domination.
More proof – if any was needed – of Loeb’s innate ability to adapt to new challenges came in 2016 once his time in touring cars came to an end at the conclusion of the previous season.
Loeb switched from Citroën to sister PSA brand Peugeot for his first stab at the Dakar Rally aboard the manufacturer’s 2008 DKR. And he caused sensation on the first proper stage of the event – the originally scheduled opener was canceled due to poor weather in Rosario – setting the fastest time and taking the lead of the overall classification. Loeb mastered the test from Villa Carlos Paz to Termas de Río Hondo and then cemented his arrival on the Dakar by winning the following 195-mile Jujuy stage.
Up against Mr Dakar himself, the legendary Stéphane Peterhansel in the same team, Loeb was able to hold his own in the early going, and despite being beaten by Peterhansel on stage four, responded on the next stage to beat his compatriot and Carlos Sainz.
If the opening two stage wins were a display of Loeb’s pace and adaptability of the road conditions, his victory on stage five was proof that he and long-time co-driver Daniel Elena had mastered the navigational challenge of the Dakar. Across the 203-mile Jujuy to Uyuni stage, Loeb and Elena lost only around 20 seconds following a mistake at a junction but produced an otherwise perfect run to maintain the lead.
A crash 12 miles from the finish of stage eight halted their quest for overall victory, while mechanical woes on the next test only added to the frustration, but a ninth-place finish on his first outing on the Dakar was enough for the world to see Loeb’s genius at the wheel.