M-Sport driver Pierre-Louis Loubet is targeting a first World Rally Championship podium on this week’s Rally Portugal – and has good reason for believing it’s possible.
Loubet’s had a mixed start to his first full campaign in a Rally1 car.
He showed great determination to battle through broken power-steering through most of Friday’s leg in Monte Carlo, but slid wide and crashed into a bridge on Saturday’s first stage and put himself out.
The 26-year-old kept his nose clean in Sweden but made two mistakes in México, before a solid run to seventh in Croatia where small mechanical problems and poor tire choices restricted his result.
But the 2019 WRC2 champion has always gone well on warmer, gravel rallies – particularly Sardinia and the Acropolis last year – so he feels Portugal marks the moment he can start producing some “good things”.
Loubet told DirtFish: “I’m very happy to go there. Now we go to a rally where I feel very comfortable.
“From the beginning of the season I was a bit cautious but now I think we come on a rally where I’m sure the performance will be there.
“I’m quite confident that we can fight for.. we need to be minimum top four and try to do a podium. That will be the target because in Greece and Sardinia last year we were fast and we did a good step during the season last year.
“So I think we can believe it.”
Loubet’s best WRC result to-date remains fourth in both Sardinia and Greece last year, but he been firmly in contention for a podium in Greece before a puncture on Saturday morning dumped him to seventh.
He will also start Portugal’s first leg eighth on the road and last of the Rally1 cars, so should theoretically have the best of the conditions.
M-Sport team principal Richard Millener feels Loubet’s Portugal target is “realistic but on the ambitious side of realistic”.
He told DirtFish: ” I think fourth is very easy for people to say ‘I want to come fourth’ but fourth is still quite difficult to achieve.
“OK there’s less Rally1s at the moment with us running effectively only two this year, Hyundai potentially two to three, and Toyota three to four. So there is less cars than we’d all wanted, but at the same time coming fourth is hard.
“If you look at the top three that you want to fill up and you’ve got Tänak, Thierry, Ogier, Elfyn as one group of people, and Kalle, so you’ve got five people there and you’ve still got Taka, Lappi, Pierre, Sordo as well.
“You’ve still got a good second batch, so to get fourth – it’s not a given that you’ll turn up and ‘I’ll get fourth, it’ll be OK.’ Sixth to fourth is just as hard as third to first.”
Asked about Loubet’s season more generally, Millener said it’s “tricky” to judge but pointed out that the Frenchman will be feeling considerably pressure this season than last, where he was only undertaking a part-time campaign and never registered for manufacturer points.
“I think I maybe even discussed it with you last year that it’s always the same when you go from a partial program to a full program – even without trying the pressure builds, the pressure mounts, and he’s had a tough three rallies,” Millener said.
“I think Croatia was important to get some results – he got a result, maybe not the one he was after. Again, he had a couple of small reliability things which again we’re working hard to improve and sort as best as we can, but ultimately his pace was shown again.
“A couple of good splits and I think Portugal could be his place to really kind of shine a little bit. He’s going to have a good road position and we know he can do it, and I think if he can get a good result it will really bring him back to the forefront.
“But it’s not easy, he’s a second nominated driver, he is part of the main team, he’s in the limelight and expected to deliver. And the fans don’t take into account all the pressure from behind the scenes because the fans like the drivers, like the competition, [but] it can be a bit more tricky from that side.
“They’ve got media involved, you’ve got presence around you because you’re there the full season, you’re expected to do well. And it’s not easy.
“But like I say I think Croatia was one of his strongest events this year, we saw glimmers of the pace that we saw last year. Hopefully he can build on that now.
“It was important just to get the result as that’s what he wanted to begin, and he’s got that now. So we’re looking on the up from here on in really.”