x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Loeb is the king of the road

Already the most successful rally driver in history, the renowned "tarmac specialist" has been dubbed his sport's Michael Schumacher.

Sebastien Loeb has won all three rallies this season in the World Rally Championship.
Sebastien Loeb has won all three rallies this season in the World Rally Championship.

With five consecutive championships and a world record 50 rally victories to his name, Sebastien Loeb's domination of the FIA World Rally Championship is undeniable. Already the most successful rally driver in history, the renowned "tarmac specialist" has been dubbed his sport's Michael Schumacher. And with his three rally wins this year coming on Irish asphalt, Norwegian snow and Cypriot gravel tracks, the Frenchman is giving tutorials to the WRC's various surface specialists on their favoured terrains.

Buoyed by an early hat-trick of victories in 2009, the diminutive, ballet-trained driver is the clear favourite to make it four-out-of-four when the 12-event series heads to Portugal this weekend. It is the country's first WRC appearance since 2007, when, unsurprisingly, Loeb topped the podium en route to world title number four. Loeb, 34, is rally's undisputed king, an opinion confirmed by the sport's other "royal" star, Abu Dhabi's BP-Ford driver Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi, who cannot see the ruler's reign ending anytime soon.

"The WRC drivers call him 'The Machine'," he said. "He'll keep winning as long as he keeps rallying. He's unstoppable and completely unique - there has never been a driver who gets wins and results like Seb." In bagging two eighth place finishes already this year, in Ireland and Cyprus, al Qassimi is writing his own piece of WRC history. As he approaches two full years at the sport's highest level, the most decorated Arab WRC driver ever has no illusions about Loeb's unrivalled position at the sport's summit.

"He's an athlete who has been well prepared and had great support from the French racing authorities right from the beginning. Gifted drivers can compete on any terrain and his versatility shows just how good he is. "Traditionally the best drivers are Scandinavian but Seb has everything and he's broken all the form rules," added al Qassimi. Certain quarters suggest Loeb's retirement would open up rallying in the same way Schumacher's exit reignited a distinctly second-best Formula One grid.

Indeed, a pursuit of a sixth consecutive world championship could be the imperious Citroen driver's final swansong. It's not his skills or his age that are questioned. Victories are all Loeb has known for more than half a decade. It is not a question of winning, but losing which drives the conspirators. As with most champions, Loeb's longevity will depend on his hunger and desire to stay top. The anti-Loebists say his appetite is fading; they are hoping the king abdicates and others get a chance to don his crown and claim the empty throne.

The nature of sport suggests a young pretender will emerge, a challenger worthy to succeed the old ruler. But only the most fool-hardy and narrow-minded of Loeb's doubters would deny the impact the Alsace-born speedster has had on rallying - a sport eternally confined to Formula One's shadow. But al Qassimi is no doubter: "Loeb can be distant and sometimes he looks all by himself in his own world, but that gives him focus and he's done amazing things for rally."

With three consecutive 2009 wins, Loeb is addressing the doom merchants in the same effortless style he has navigated his illustrious career: head on. Unless it is through a tight Portuguese hairpin, when the king is more likely to be sideways as he chases win 51. emegson@thenational.ae