Saturday, 18 July 2009

‘Ere, Loeb’s coming!

There has been much talk of a big name in motorsport making the jump into F1. The rumours flying around at the moment are concering Toro Rosso (they did about Bourdais’ eventual exit) as reports suggest that 5-time and reigning World Rally Champion, Sebastien Loeb is to make his debut in the World Championship before this season is through, most likely at the end of it in Abu Dhabi. Autosport magazine this week suggests that deal is done and he will get a go in the STR4 as will Bourdais’ current replacement, Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari and also, rumoured to be, previous reserve driver for both Red Bull teams, Kiwi Brendon Hartley.

Loeb’s tie in with Red Bull as a whole comes from the drinks company’s title sponsorship with Seb’s current employers, the works Citroen WRC team. Olivier Quesnel, the team boss, has said that right now, it’s simply not possible for Seb to race with STR now since he’s caught in the middle of a championship battle with Mikko Hirvonen and Ford. But with the Abu Dhabi race taking place after the WRC season finishes, he has said that Loeb is essentially a free agent and can do what he likes. This would of course open the door for him to step through, into F1.

So is this serious or just one big publicity stunt by Red Bull themselves just to push promotion and sales of the brand? In motorsport as a whole, I’ve seen a Red-Bull sponsored car in pretty much every race series currently in existence. Their reach in this sport is amazing. With their own driver program and of course 2 F1 teams, it’s not hard for Dietrich Mateschitz for capitalise on any kind of marketing opportunity. But somehow, I don’t think it is. Loeb has said that he is committed to his duties in the WRC but wouldn’t say no to a drive in F1. I’m sure every other racing driver in the world be the same. Well, maybe not Montoya, but…

Of course, Seb has driven an F1 car before. His first time was when he and then Renault driver Heikki Kovalainen swapped cars, with the Finn trying out the C4 WRC while Loeb got behind the wheel of the R27 at the Paul Ricard HTTT circuit. You would have thought he’d take it easy and just trundle round. But this is Sebastien Loeb we’re talking about here, and this clip of him in said R27 proves my point – he doesn’t:

It seems to me that Loeb has that confidence that he’s picked up from all his years rallying. With this just being a publicity thing, you would have thought he’d play it safe and not push the car too hard. But he looks right at home in that car to me. He’s not afraid at all to go flat out. Look at the video at 2m 03 seconds onwards. He’s flat out at the end of the long Mistral straight at Paul Ricard and without a hint of lifting just powers round the long right hander with ease. Not a hesitation, not a flinch.

Then only last year was Seb invited by Red Bull to join them on an official test day in Barcelona. Beforehand, they brought him down to the factory in Milton Keynes for a seat fitting ahead of his first run in the RB4 at a damp Silverstone. Now without traction control as opposed to that in the Renault, on a wet track, you would think once again that Loeb wouldn’t particularly go too hard. Wrong:

Despite the wet conditions, Loeb still gives full pelt down the back straight and also seems to carry decent speed through the corners too. I think that with more track time he’ll be as fast as the current field of drivers and fit in very well. His performance at the Barcelona test last November was impressive, setting the 8th fastest time of the day he drove, faster that Piquet if I recall (fail).

It makes me think why rally drivers don’t get the opportunity to drive F1 cars more often. As I mentioned earlier, they seem to have a level of confidence that is on a par, if not higher, to those who regularly compete in the World Championship. F1 drivers just have the track, other drivers and weather conditions as obstacles. Rally drivers face all of this plus objects in the road such as rocks, boulders, trees and not forgetting the jumps and loose slippery surfaces. F1 drivers don’t have to contend with the potential scenario going at top speed through a narrow forest, trees all around, on a muddy, slippery road with braking distances greatly increased, knowing that you can slide off the road into the trees or down a bank at any moment if you make but a minute mistake. Rally drivers dare to push the limits a bit more than F1 because they need to be in order to stay in the hunt for the overall win.

I think that should this all go ahead as seemingly planned and it turns out Loeb does get to do the Abu Dhabi race and then a full time drive next season with Toro Rosso (and that’s something I’d definitely like to see), he has the potential to do fairly well. I think he seems to know how to handle a car on the edge and that might just put him in good stead. Reports suggest he’s been getting track time in an F3000 car in order to get up to speed. Apart from the 3 F1 test drives, his appearance at Le Mans and a drive in the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP LMP1 car, he’s had very little time on the racetrack compared to being on the stages. But as I pointed out in the last blog post I did, he needs a lot of track time in the car to get him up to speed as quickly as possible. That’s what needs to happen to make this work properly. If it all goes through, I wish Seb all the very best and I shall be supporting him!

Finally, he wasn’t actually the first rally driver that I know of to drive an F1 car. That honour fell to the late, great Colin McRae who was given a test drive by Jordan Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1996 as a birthday present in exchange for team driver Martin Brundle driving Colin’s world championship winning Subaru Imprezza 555 rally car. Eddie Jordan believed that had McRae chosen to race on the track than on the dirt, he could have had the potential to win multiple titles. But then again, when have we taken anything EJ says seriously recently, if at all ever?