The next stop in Sebastien Loeb's seemingly relentless march to an unprecedented seventh consecutive world title will be negotiated today, when the diminutive French driver leads the World Rally Championship (WRC) field into Rally Turkey - round four of the 13-event series. Barring a second-place finish in the season-opening Swedish event, Loeb is enjoying another impressive, and error free, campaign.
Consecutive victories in Mexico and Jordan have allowed the Cit-roen driver to open up a 25-point gap - equivalent to one victory - before the calendar has completed its first quarter. The fact that Loeb has been able to dominate this year's field without contesting an asphalt stage, his preferred surface, is even more telling. Loeb has been showing steady improvement on gravel for the last half decade. Not even the tinkering tactics of the FIA - who have mischieviously selected nine gra-vel rounds in this year's schedule - have failed to dent his seemingly unstoppable surge to a magnificent seventh title.
Regular arch-rival Mikko Hirvonen, third in the championship standings on 37 points, some 31 behind his nemesis, is already struggling to keep pace with Loeb. And with rounds in New Zealand and Portugal [May] - both fixtures Loeb has won before - falling before the season's first tarmac test in Bulgaria [July], Loeb is not short of reasons to be optimistic. "It's always good to have an ace up your sleeve. But the way the 2009 season panned out reminded me that you can't lose any points along the way," Loeb told wrc.com, referring to last year's mid-season slump when he amassed just seven points - under the previous scoring system - in three rallies.
"I'm going to start the rally with the firm intention of winning. As championship leader I'll be first out on the road again on the first day, but I'll just have to see how important a role sweeping is going to play in this event." As series leader, Loeb, who will be chasing his 57th WRC win in Istanbul, rued the constant interference of the officials in determining new methods to spice up rallying's start orders - and stop him winning.
"I don't like sweeping very much," he said. "It's a shame that all the attention is focused on this aspect rather than on the battle between the crews. My point of view hasn't changed for over two years. I think that reversing the running order of the first 15 on the second and third days is the best solution. "There are no calculations to be made and everybody has to push from start to finish. The idea of using the shakedown as a form of qualifying to allow the drivers to choose their starting order makes sense too. I just hope that the FIA will soon modify the regulations to give everybody a level playing field."
Despite Loeb's dominance, the six-time champion is adamant he is not this year's sole title contender. "What's interesting is that the 2010 season doesn't boil down to a duel between Mikko and me. There's also [BP Ford Abu Dhabi's] Jari-Matti Latvala, who now seems able to combine speed and consistency, as well as Petter Solberg and Sebastien Ogier [the Citroen Junior team duo]. They're all able to fight at the front and that includes Dani [Sordo, Loeb's teammate] too. For the moment that plays in my favour, but it could also make my job more difficult." For now Loeb is only looking at maximum points on a challenging new Turkish route, which runs on predominantly gravel passes with scattered high-speed tarmac sections.
"I've heard the stages are fairly wide and quick so driving should be great fun," he added. "I also know that there are 40 kilometres in asphalt on the second day. I'll have gravel tyres but I didn't have too many problems with this combination in Cyprus last year. As it's a question of mixed stages and I'll have to find the right rhythm when passing from one surface to the other." Few observers would be brave enough not to back Loeb, in pursuit of title No 7 getting that rhythm spot on.
* Compiled by Euan Megson