ABU DHABIi // While all 20 drivers revving their engines as the lights change at the start of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be racing on the Yas Marina Circuit for the first time, there could be one man staring at an even bigger hurdle: competing in his first ever grand prix.
The prospect that the biggest name in rallying, Sébastien Loeb, could be on the grid for the November 1 race has grown after his Citroën rally team said the Frenchman was free to compete if he secured a drive. "I am not a Formula One boss, so I have no seat to offer Sébastien," the director of Citroën Racing, Olivier Quesnel, told the media this week. "But if someone makes a proposal to Sébastien, Citroën Racing will authorise him for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, since the rally season will be over at that date."
Rumours of Loeb's transition to Formula One are the latest hot story in a season full of intrigue, and speculation in motorsport media that he could appear in Abu Dhabi went into overdrive this week. Loeb himself remains coy, but has never left any doubt about his enthusiasm for trying F1 and it appears to be only a matter of time before his participation in the showpiece season finale is confirmed.
If he does appear in Abu Dhabi, it is most likely to be with the Toro Rosso team, which shares Red Bull sponsorship with Citroën's rally squad. Although Toro Rosso has yet to confirm that it will offer Loeb a drive, he has already tested for its sister team Red Bull. "For the moment, rumours are going on but I haven't been told anything," he said. "I've not been offered anything. We've talked about projects but not one special race in particular."
Recalling his test drives, he said it was completely different from rallying. "It was a good experience, a different feeling and it was very interesting for me. "If I have an opportunity to do Formula One another time, I will take it," he added. According to Mohammed ben Sulayem, vice president for sport of motor racing's governing body, the FIA, if Loeb is on the grid for Abu Dhabi, it will give the race an extra buzz.
"I think it will create more interest in motorsport and in Abu Dhabi," he said. "He's still at his peak and he will give a good show." Any move into Formula One by Loeb, even if for only one race before, as expected, he returns to rallying in 2010, would be unusual. The number of rally drivers who have gone on to succeed in the grand prix world is tiny. Among the few is "Quick Vic" Elford, who was European rally champion in 1967 before taking part in grand prix racing over several seasons, winning eight championship points.
The crossover is more common in the other direction. Kimi Raikkonen, for example, the current Ferrari star, took part in this year's Rally Finland, only to crash out while holding an impressive third place in his class. Loeb may not be a household name in quite the same way as Michael Schumacher or the late Ayrton Senna, but there is no doubting his skill behind the wheel. Indeed, among motorsport enthusiasts he is probably held in as much awe as any multiple grand prix world champion, thanks to a glittering CV that includes five successive world titles and the record for the number of World Rally Championship wins.
But will the talents Loeb has shown to such impressive effect on the ice, grit and mud of the world's rallies translate to the grand prix circuit? According to a spokesman for the UAE-based yallaf1.com website, even if the transition from rallying to Formula One is a rare one to make, that may not necessarily count against Loeb. "Sébastien Loeb is not just your average rally driver," he said. But few doubt that rallying and track racing are very different disciplines - "worlds apart", according to Saif al Assam, an Emirati racing driver with the Abu Dhabi-based Falcon Racing team.
Rallying, he said, was all about "manhandling" the car, while on a track it was more about "gently coaxing" the machinery. "In a rally car, the way to be fast is to be very aggressive with the braking, steering and gas. With a single-seater, it's a lot more subtle, a lot more precise." He said Toro Rosso had recently introduced a new driver, Jaime Alguersuari, and might be keen to continue with him.
"On the other hand, there's no smoke without fire," he said of the speculation about Loeb. "Theoretically, it could very well happen." Despite the differences, the signs so far that Loeb will be able to master grand prix are promising. When he tested for the Red Bull team in Barcelona last November, he came eighth out of 17 drivers, setting a faster time than several with full-time Formula One experience, among them Adrian Sutil, Nelson Piquet and Christian Klein. He had also previously tested a Renault grand prix car.
"Sometimes I was braking too early and sometimes too late," Loeb said at the time. "I think it's the most difficult thing for anyone coming into F1 for the first time. I studied some videos before, which helped with things like the racing line." Luca Cima, a racing school instructor at the Dubai Autodrome, said the transition was not as difficult as moving in the opposite direction, even if it was rarer.
"I have seen some extremely talented people on tarmac and when we went rallying they weren't the best, because they wouldn't let the car drift as they were used to having it go straight," he said. "A rally driver can learn to be clean better than a tarmac driver can learn to keep the car drifting." But Formula One is as much a test of machinery as it is of the talent and experience of the driver, and if Loeb does join the grand prix circus, the car he is likely to drive is accustomed to being nearer the back of the grid than the front.
Toro Rosso has been one of the least competitive teams and its drivers have picked up just a handful of points so far this year. Mr Cima said that however skilful Loeb was in the cockpit, he would not be able to make up for the fact that he would be driving a second-tier car. "In modern Formula One, 70 per cent of it is in the hands of the car," he said. "If you put an average driver in a good car, it's more likely he will win the race than Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton in a bad car. "Sébastien Loeb's a Schumacher and even more, in his own field, but he needs to have a competitive car. "If he doesn't have a competitive car, there's nothing he can do. If he has a competitive car, he can be up in the top eight, which means in the points." But even if Loeb is unlikely to stand on the top step of the podium in Abu Dhabi - if he competes in the race at all - Mr Cima does expect him to give a good account of himself. "Everyone in the motorsport world knows he's unique," he said. * The National, with additional reporting by Euan Megson and AFP