Kalle Rovanperä’s stint as the new kid on the block in the World Rally Championship is already coming to an end after only three rallies. Another rookie is on the scene at Rally Estonia with Hyundai: Pierre-Louis Loubet.
A newcomer to the WRC’s top level is a rarity. Only six drivers who could be considered aspiring professional rally drivers (no gentlemen drivers, in other words) have debuted in current specification Rally1 machinery since the current high-downforce beasts were introduced four years ago.
There’s long been suggestions by some in the paddock that the gap between the R5s used in WRC2, WRC3, the European Rally Championship and most national championships, and the modern World Rally Car is too big for rookies to cope with.
Rovanperä has helped disprove that somewhat. He’s only three rallies into his Rally1 career and he’s already got a podium to his name, and has been impressively on the pace from the start.
You could argue he’s the exception, of course. But the WRC’s baby-faced assassin isn’t going to be the new kid on the block anymore, now that Loubet will be competing in a 2C Competition-prepared Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC three times in 2020 (originally four, but Germany being canceled knocked that number down).
So here’s the obvious question: how’s Loubet going to fare at the highest level?
Luckily we’ve had a little bit of insight into that already, thanks to his back-to-back appearances on Rally di Roma and Rally di Alba’s standalone Rally1 events, run concurrently with their European Rally Championship and Italy WRC counterparts.
Our best shot at a meaningful metric to judge Loubet so far are the number of seconds per kilometre he surrendered to his esteemed colleagues during those rallies. For Roma that’s Dani Sordo and it’s Thierry Neuville for Alba. The rally formats may have been different to WRC, but the stopwatch rarely lies.
In Rome, Loubet was 0.37s/km slower than Sordo on average, after correcting for a throttle problem that sent Sordo off-road and cost him half a minute. It was a bit more than that on Rally di Alba against Neuville, at 0.54s/km.
Those numbers on their own don’t mean much, so let’s contextualize them.
Sébastien Loeb is a fairly lofty benchmark to start off with, but his run in an i20 on Monte Carlo Rally this January was an uncharacteristically poor performance. Still, a nine-time world champion having an off-day is a decent starting point.
Let’s get rid of Sunday’s stages for this; a disastrous tire choice put Loeb off the road on SS14 and left him tip-toeing through the last two tests. Let’s judge him on his real pace that week. Said adjustment puts Loeb 0.81s/km slower than rally winner and Hyundai team-mate Neuville on average.
Better still, Loubet compares favorably to his fellow class of Rally1 rookies when assessing their first two events in a current-spec WRC car against similar opposition.
Pontus Tidemand technically wasn’t a Rally1 rookie when he stepped up to the WRC last year, as he’d done his home round of the championship in a previous-generation Fiesta WRC twice. But his stint at M-Sport last year was the first time he’d had a proper run at the big time, so we’ll count him here. And like Loubet, he’s a WRC2 champion.
He showed that success in the support categories doesn’t guarantee speed in a Rally1 car. Tidemand was 1.3s/km off the pace across his first two outings on aggregate, in Monte Carlo and Sweden respectively. It didn’t get much better after that, and now he’s already back to the Škoda Fabia R5 that served him so well in the past.
Both Toyota’s Japanese protégé Takamoto Katsuta and M-Sport’s Gus Greensmith – two drivers who like Loubet are running part-time campaigns this year – were north of 1s/km off the leader’s pace during their first two rallies competing in Rally1 cars with WRC-caliber opposition. Katsuta had even been given two rallies in the Finnish national championship to get acclimatized to the Yaris WRC beforehand.
Then there’s a big gap. Esapekka Lappi comes in fourth, averaging 0.66s/km off the leader’s pace in Portugal and Italy combined back in 2017. Then it’s the golden boy, Rovanperä, on 0.5s/km off the top when combining Monte Carlo and Sweden.
And that average is especially important; Sweden is one of the fastest events on the calendar alongside Finland, usually leading to small time gaps, whereas Monte Carlo is at the other end of the scale given its propensity for throwing up randomness and chaos. The two help balance each other out for the purposes of deducing a usable average.
Anyway, Loubet. The reason you’re here. Roma and Alba are a world away from the cold and (sometimes) icy conditions of the Alps and Värmland. But we’re not comparing rallies here, we’re comparing deficits to the best in the business. And in Loubet’s case, that was 0.46s/km across both rallies.
This is impressive considering not only how green he was, but how sensible and mature his drive was. No crazy, wayward mistakes while pushing a la Teemu Suninen on Rally Finland 2017 (who tops this seconds-per-kilometre list of ours at 0.42s/km), but leaving a little bit of margin everywhere; leaving a foot of space on the exit here, avoiding a potentially risky cut there.
This is a good sign. He’s not found his limit yet, and he’s already in a broadly similar ballpark to where the current trio of talented young Finns were at the very start of their WRC careers.
And even though there’s a French flag on the side of his Hyundai, Loubet’s no sealed-surface specialist. All his wins and podiums in WRC2 (now WRC3) last year came on the gravel events of Portugal, Italy, and GB. He’s even got previous experience of Rally Estonia, albeit in a two-wheel-drive car, competing there in 2015 when it was an ERC event.
But I’m not getting excited just yet.
None of this guarantees Loubet’s any good in practice when it comes to performing at rallying’s highest level, of course. And though there’s a numbers-driven approach here, the data is still rather subjective.
That 0.46s/km figure is helped by Sordo and Neuville being rusty; it’d been months since either had driven a WRC car on a rally, and it was effectively a live test session for both, not a point-scoring WRC event with everything on the line. They’ll both have left something in the tank.
It does still appear that Loubet is a driver to keep an eye on for the rest of 2020. The third factory Hyundai is one of the few factory seats still up for grabs in 2021, now that Toyota’s line-up is all but formally settled and M-Sport realistically requires cash on the table from any potential suitors, as Andreas Mikkelsen has already highlighted.
Craig Breen is edging closer and closer to that Hyundai seat thanks to his patience, according to team boss Andrea Adamo, but if Loubet can turn those promising pair of Italian jobs into strong runs on the world stage, who knows what happens next?
Being in the same ballpark as Rovanperä on paper is a good starting point.