Our Chat With 9x-WRC Champion Sébastien Loeb On His Rallying Return With Hyundai
Photography by Daniel Nikodem
They call him ‘The Boss,’ or Le Patron for a good reason. Sébastien Loeb has dominated one of the most challenging forms of Motorsport, rally driving. It is a sport that requires extreme concentration, memorization, and endurance. It is like a triathlon combined with the SATs.
It would be easy to talk about his nine victories in a row and his status as the most successful driver in World Rally Championship history. How good is he? He took a four-year break, came back, and took his 79th victory in Spain in 2018. The only thing more impressive than his records is how humble he is.
He is now embarking on a new adventure with Hyundai Motorsport this season for six rounds in the 2019 WRC, but before that takes place, we got a chance to have a few moments with him to ask him a few questions.
Steve Bolton: You’ve seen a lot of changes in rally racing over your career. What are the most prominent differences in cars now versus before?
Sébastian Loeb: “The suspension is much better now than they were in the past, and the engine is a bit stronger. It was about 320 horsepower; now it’s 400. There is more downforce on the car, but for the rest, it’s not a big evolution because the regulation is quite perfected. We don’t have ABS, nor do we don’t have traction control. So the driving is not very different, so I’d say the biggest evolution for me is the suspension and the downforce of the cars.”
SB: When you first heard that Hyundai was interested in having you as a driver, what was your impression of Hyundai at the time?
SL: “For me, I was thrilled to get a call from Hyundai. I had been doing WRC for ten years at that point, and now I have a daughter who I want to spend plenty of time with. The challenge is that the season takes place all over the world and the travel can be difficult. Since I retired from it, I was wondering what I was going to do, and when Hyundai called, I didn’t have to think very long before I agreed and said yes. It was a dream come true.”
SB: You’re doing six races, instead of a whole season, for Hyundai – what are the challenges you are facing?
SL: “For me, the most difficult thing is when I was competing in the past, I did all the seasons in a row. 10 years in a row. So when you are rallying from one year to the other to the same rally, you know it nearly perfectly or just a few new stages, but generally, the rallies are the same approximately one year to the other. Now, what is more, complicated for me to arrive without those experiences that I have because I need a few rallies to get settled? The preparation for rallies has also changed, because, with the application of technology, you can see the onboard videos of the drivers in the championship and learn from them. You have to be really smart to reach a high level in shorter races. So when you have less practice, it makes it more difficult.”
SB: So doing 6 races is tougher than the whole season?
SL: “Yeah, just doing six rallies for the season is more complicated because you do one day of tests for the rally. When you do 14 rallies, you do 14 days of testing. So 14 times, 3 days of rallying, you are continuing all the season over the year. For me I have some time between the rallies, then I am back in the car, and it might be for the world championship. The level is really high and to be able to sit in the car three months later, without having driven in between, is not the easiest situation to be in.”
SB: You’ve had a chance to drive the i30n, the street version of your rally car, what was your impression of it?
SL: “Honestly, I was surprised in a good way. I didn’t know this car before, and it was really a good stock car. The engine is performing very well. What I like also are the different modes that you can select as this is very rare in this kind of streetcar. I enjoyed setting up the modes to my liking. It’s so easy as well, you press one button, you set your engine mode, gearbox mode, and then it’s automatic. You set everything up and then when you sit in the car, you press one button, and you have the configuration, and gearing, you want. I have never seen anything like it in a streetcar; I was quite impressed.”
SB: How do you think Hyundai will do in the 2019 season?
SL: “We have some things that we need to improve, and that it’s not easy to do like this because the regulation is quite strict and you can not change a lot of things during the season or even from one season to the other. We have some excellent ideas about what we need to improve, but we are not able to change everything in one step. But I think we are on the right path – the car is running better and better. But we want to win the world championship, and we are always continuing to improve if we’re going to be able to continue to win.
Also, the quality of the team this year is high – we have top drivers fighting for the driving title. They also have a few different drivers to select from between Dani, and me, so they can choose who the best driver for each race and at the moment this works quite well. I hope we will continue at this pace and continue to be able to fight for the championship.”
SB: If you had to choose one race, one car, and one stage, what would you choose?
SL”For me, the best part is driving the latest technology with the Hyundai on the gravel, so as long as there are some fast, smooth gravel stages, and I’m in the Hyundai, it’s amazing.”
Racing images courtesy of Hyundai Motorsport