He may be the lead Formula 1 commentator for French television channel Canal+, but, make no mistake, Julien Fébreau is rallycross through and through. So much so, that one former team boss reckons he is “one of the best drivers I’ve ever run”.
That team boss is Albatec Racing’s Andy Scott, who certainly has a good reference point when he drops that sort of endorsement. He’s run the likes of 1997 F1 champion – and Fébreau’s Canal+ colleague – Jacques Villeneuve, Mika Salo, Yvan Muller, Mark Higgins and even Kris Meeke just to name a few.
All professional drivers and vastly more experienced than Fébreau, who modestly describes himself as “100% an amateur”. But rallycross runs deep in the Fébreau family, thanks to the success of Julien’s father Christian Lefeuvre who won the French championship in 1992.
“My dad used to do a lot of off-road racing, like the Dakar Rally, rally raids in Morocco, Tunisia and in Egypt and that was the first part of his driving career so to speak,” explains Fébreau, who used to attend many events in which his father competed.
“Then he discovered rallycross and I suppose the first memory I have of him doing that was when I was around three or four years old. He’d had a crash with another driver and the radiator was all damaged.
“The whole team – including me – pitched in and fixed it, putting bits of chewing gum in the gaps to keep things in place, so that was my first experience in rallycross.
“Obviously, when you have that as your first real memory of the sport, it stays with you. All through my childhood, we spent holidays going to rallycross races so it was hard not to go into any other profession that motorsport.”
While deciding not to pursue a career behind the wheel, it is quite clear Fébreau was always destined to work in motorsport. He became the F1 reporter for radio station RMC in 2005 before landing his big TV break in 2013 when Canal+ secured the F1 rights deal from the publicly funded TF1 channel.
Being an F1 commentator is a time-consuming job, but Fébreau is always keen to blow off steam in the few gaps in his calendar by returning to his old roots.
He made his first competitive rallycross appearance in 2008, at the wheel of a 150cc Citroën C2 Challenge before moving up to the Super1600 category of the French championship (running a Citroën Saxo S600) in 2011.
The success came quickly, winning his second race in the 1600 category in front of nearly 40,000 spectators at Lohéac, not far from his hometown of Rennes in the north of France.
Twelve months later, Fébreau was fast making a name for himself, with three victories and a further seven podiums in 10 races. The next step was SuperCars.
Andy Scott was one of the first team bosses to notice the incredible raw talent of Fébreau, who became only the third driver in French rallycross history (after Jean-Luc Pailler and Davy Jeanney) to win on their SuperCar debut.
“Julien had rented cars from Jean-Luc in the past and was obviously looking to do some races in a Supercar,” recounts Scott, who ran Fébreau in his Dumfries-based Albatec squad in 2015.
“We exchanged emails and struck a deal, initially for two races and a quick test. But from our time together, it was clear that Julien was a very talented driver, very good at absorbing information and giving technical feedback.
“I’ve worked with a lot of drivers over the years, some very good ones and some not so good ones, and Julien is up there with the best drivers I’ve ever worked with.
“His ability to take his technical feedback and adapt that into his driving style was exceptional.
“We’d say to him sometimes: ‘OK Julien, if you were a meter wider on the entry to this corner and maybe 5mph slower, you’d be 20mph quicker on the exit’ and he’d just go out there and do it. That was impressive.”
Olsbergs MSE boss Andreas Eriksson was the key cog in the Fébreau-Scott relationship ahead of the 2015 season, before Julien joined forces with Jean Baptiste and Andrea Dubourg’s DA Racing outfit from 2016.
“In August 2014, I was invited to do a round of the World Rallycross Championship, in the RX2 category at Trois-Rivières which was all arranged by Andreas,” Fébreau continues.
“It was the first time a world championship race was held there and there had been a lot of incidents and damage to the cars.
“And in RX2 at the time, everything was done in one day, so you had to look after your car if you wanted to get into the semi-finals and the final.
“I was the only one to get through who had a completely undamaged car, because I was very careful, very cautious in the races, and in the end, I finished third in the final.”
It was there that Eriksson took notice and told Scott about Fébreau’s abilities. A year later, Fébreau backed up his maiden SuperCar victory in the French championship with a second success, again at Pont-de-Ruan, driving Albatec’s Peugeot 208 WRX.
An aspect in which Fébreau has excelled in rallycross has been concentration, particularly when it comes to driving and communicating on the radio, a common issue with amateur drivers.
Of course, it should not have come as a surprise. After all, his job as a TV commentator has more chatter during a two-hour F1 race in the background than most team radios have in an entire weekend, which comes in handy on track.
“A lot of drivers find the concentration aspect difficult, but my job constantly involves people talking in the background, often when you yourself are talking to viewers, so it was an easy thing to adapt to.
“It was one less thing to get used to, it felt normal so I was able to just focus on the driving.”
Again, it becomes clear that even by looking at results alone that Fébreau could easily have made it as a professional rallycross driver had he elected to go a different path.
Despite this, Scott believes that his former driver could still cause an upset against some of the out and-out rallycross stars of today, given the opportunity.
“Basically, from what I’ve seen, Julien is right up there with the best, in terms of natural ability and technical knowledge and application,” Scott says.
“I’ve no doubt that if he were to do some more Supercar races, he could be a contender in say, the European championship. Maybe not for the title, because his calendar wouldn’t fit, but I’d say he’d definitely win races, absolutely.”
Race-winning amateurs are becoming harder to come by these days in the face of increasing professionalism, but Fébreau is flying the flag remarkably well.
And just in case you were in any doubt of his rallycross passion, instead of idolizing the likes of soccer icons Platini, Papin and Amoros like his mates, his were somewhat different.
“My heros growing up were guys like Jean-Luc Pailler and Tommy Kristoffersson, and my dream was always to become a rallycross driver. Whereas all my friends used to idolize footballers, that never interested me.”