This one word, repeated twice, wasn’t so much spoken as screamed at the top of French Formula 1 commentator Julien Fébreau’s lungs on this weekend 24 months ago at Monza.
Carlos Sainz – the younger one, not the two-time World Rally champion – rounded the final corner, was approaching the leader’s rear wing at a rapid pace. But it wasn’t enough. France’s 24-year wait for a new Grand Prix winner was finally over.
“Ne lâche pas!” – hang on in there – Fébreau added as the AlphaTauri zipped out of Parabolica and towards the finish line.
Hang on Pierre Gasly did. He’d surprised everyone with a win that no-one – not least the man himself – was expecting to score.
That same commentary was ringing in my ears on the fifth stage of the Acropolis on Friday. Another Frenchman named Pierre was at it again, taking the formbook and shoving it firmly into a shredder.
It was reasonable to think Pierre-Louis Loubet would be in the top five (his pre-event target) by this point. Much as Gasly before him was handed a tactical advantage with a well-timed safety car on that fateful Sunday a year ago, Loubet was afforded the prime position in the road order – last, bar M-Sport gentleman driver Jourdan Serderidis.
His car, much as M-Sport has been maligned of late for its complete lack of meaningful results put on the board, remains a potential rally winner. Sébastien Loeb had already proven as much – and continues to do so at the top of the leaderboard. But it’s what Loubet has done with his Ford Puma Rally1 thus far that’s been more astounding.
Almost exactly one year on from Gasly’s eureka moment, Loubet was in a tailspin. He’d finished only one WRC event out of eight. Later, he was destined to be hit by a car when out in the city streets of Paris and suffer a broken hip.
His dreams of a WRC career appeared shattered too. 2021 had been an unmitigated disaster.
But it had looked that way for the other Pierre too once. He’d had his chance with Red Bull and been demoted back to the B-team – a fate usually terminal for F1 careers. But when all looked lost, Gasly had found a way back.
Now Loubet is finding his way back. And he’s surprising the people who gave him that second chance, M-Sport.
“He came in this year with no real expectations from our side and I don’t think so many from his side,” Richard Millener, M-Sport team principal, told DirtFish.
Flying out of the blocks and challenging nine-time world champion Loeb for the lead, in equal machinery no less, was the culmination of months spent rebuilding a shattered reputation. In Portugal and Italy he’d shown speed but encountered problems or made minor driving errors.
But Friday in Greece looked an awful lot like his namesake’s Sunday in Italy a year earlier.
“Every rally he’s pretty much been very impressive. But today’s been the icing on the cake.
“I think a few people would say road position would be the reason but honestly, the two or three people around him are in a very similar position and he’s shown today that he can beat them.
“I think it’s just his driving doing the talking.”
It’s sometimes easy to remember that once – just like Gasly – Loubet won a championship in the primary support category. His WRC2 title in 2019 was no fluke; he was at ease in the Škoda Fabia R5 in a way he couldn’t be in the Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC. Just as Gasly couldn’t get the Red Bull RB15 to do his bidding, Loubet had found the i20 Coupe too much of a handful.
A reboot has brought the feeling back. And Millener has noticed.
“The speed’s been incredible and his splits have been kind of close-your-eyes kind of splits,” he observed. “But actually when you watch the onboard it looks very tidy. It looks like very sensible, normal driving, nothing too much over the edge.”
It’s been an impressive drive from Loubet so far. But it’s about more than just him as an individual.
As Gasly’s Monza win reminded F1 fans in 2020, Loubet’s fabulous Friday awoke something in us rally fans. A reminder as to why we all follow the discipline in the first place. We need new names to come like a bolt out of the blue and announce their arrival – or a reminder you shouldn’t have written them off.
There have been exciting finishes to rallies this year: Croatia’s weather chaos and Monte’s showdown of the Sébs were both brilliant to watch. But that moment when Loubet turned the timing screens green on Dafni hit different.
Loubet’s co-driver Vincent Landais had written pacenotes that reminded Pierre to keep calm. They worked for him – not so much luck here. It was the most excited I’ve been following rallying all year. Séb vs Séb hadn’t left me physically shaking from excitement – this did. By Bauxites, the last stage of the day, my leg had started twitching involuntarily (much like Gasly’s old boss Christian Horner) from the nerves.
This was bigger than a fight for the win or a battle for the world championship. It was the long-awaited arrival of redemption; a miraculous escape from the depths of despair.
Expecting Loubet to somehow defeat Loeb in a straight fight and turn this into a miracle victory may well be asking too much. A career-best podium in the bank would mark a huge turnaround and would be a very sensible target.
But the second I see Loubet turning those splits green again, you’d better believe I’ll be shouting at the screen: Accélère, accélère.