Monday, June 24, 2024

INTERVIEW: No WRC return “at the moment” as Sebastien Loeb prepares for Extreme E return

Sébastien Loeb is a nine-time World Rally Champion and the reigning Extreme E champion, but as he prepares to make his return to the latter at this weekend’s Island X Prix, he does not have anything lined up in the former. In a roundtable with select media including The Checkered Flag on Friday, Loeb revealed he has “no plan at the moment” to race in WRC again.

Loeb stepped away from full-time WRC competition in 2013 after winning his ninth consecutive title, but has occasionally raced again in the decade since. Even as a guest driver, he has won four times including two Monte Carlo Rallies, the latest in 2022. Another run in 2023 was impossible due to schedule conflicts with the Dakar Rally and World Rally-Raid Championship.

While he didn’t give a reason for not eyeing a WRC return, Loeb was relatively lukewarm on the sport’s growing electrification though is more favourable of the current hybrid model. Although he races in the electric-based Extreme E and FIA World Rallycross Championship, he finds fully electric rallying presents more issues than benefits at the moment.

“I think everything is possible but the format today, I’m not sure it shoots completely to the electric directed modes,” he explained. “I think the hybrid is much closer from what it has to be because also in rallying, you will face some other problems if you have some cars which are making no noise for the spectators, for things like this, for the show. We are making the show with the fight between the cars like in rallycross, also in WRC, if you have a silent car coming along, I’m not sure it will be amazing. Maybe it’s good to think to some other solutions.”

With the electric factor seemingly more practical in wheel-to-wheel motorsport, Loeb returns to the series he won in 2022. Despite being the defending XE champion, he departed X44 when Prodrive—for whom he races in the W2RC—was replaced by Carlin as the team’s technical ally. He found himself at ABT CUPRA XE for the Island X Prix as a substitute for Nasser Al-Attiyah, his W2RC rival who is competing at the Italian Baja.

Loeb has two wins in Extreme E at the 2021 Jurassic X Prix and the 2022 Copper X Prix.

“The goal when I’m doing a race is always to be fast and to fight for the podium, so that’s the goal of the weekend to have the best result as possible,” said Loeb. “It’s a different team but the car is very similar. We have all nearly the same car, but it’s quite a long time I didn’t drive in Extreme E. It’s nice to be back. Sardinia is a nice race.

“The plan at the moment is to come for one race. I had this proposition. It’s (been) a long time since I did so many races. [Nasser] proposed to me if I would be happy to do one run and then I said yes. That’s where we are at the moment. So it’s no plan for the future until now.”

Despite not closely following the series since his exit, Loeb noted the increased parity between the grid. Veloce Racing, who failed to win a race in their first two seasons let alone score a podium in 2022, was the first to notch two victories in 2023. ACCIONA | Sainz XE Team also scored their maiden win at the second Desert X Prix, while X44’s title defence saw them win the first Hydro X Prix but has been relegated to the Redemption Race twice.

“What I see is that the level of the different teams are really close now,” the Frenchman commented. “Two years ago, we were only two or three guys fighting in the front. Now, it’s very equal between everybody and even the female drivers are very close from each other. It’s much more difficult to make the difference and so because I think the level grew in every team, the level today is really, really high.”

After a slow Free Practice 1 as he got re-acclimated to the series, Loeb set the fastest time of all drivers in the second session, though his team was disqualified for an underweight car.

“I tried to take my rhythm again in the practice,” he continued. “It went well in the second practice, so everything is fine at the moment. Just hope to have a good starting position tomorrow because now the regulation change also since I was driving, all the quali are better. It makes it more like a gamble and not what I prefer, but it’s the same for everybody so we will try to have a good start tomorrow.”

Credit: Sam Bloxham

In 2022, X44 finished sixth and second in the two Island X Prix rounds; Loeb’s team-mate at X44 was Cristina Gutiérrez, a fellow W2RC driver who will work with him again at the 2025 Dakar Rally when they join up with Dacia. While the 2023 Island X Prix is on the Italian Army Capo Teulada Major Training Area in Sardinia as in previous years, the course layout is only half the size of 2022’s but much faster.

While he is a fan of Sardinia, Loeb’s biggest challenge will be getting used to the new race format. Taking inspiration from the 2022 Island X Prix, Extreme E introduced a doubleheader style for 2023 with two rounds of heat races followed by either a Redemption Race or Grand Final depending on how one performs in the qualifiers.

“It’s a track I like. It’s a bit of rally driving side, so it makes it exciting,” remarked Loeb. “The only thing which is a bit difficult will be that we start all together with many starting options. It makes it quite challenging also, but we see a lot of dust in the practice and we know that if you are behind, it will be very difficult to to catch and and to overtake.

“With the new rule that makes that the quali is only linked to your position at the end of the quali, it makes it a bit different from what it was. It’s just a bit more like a lottery. We know we have good speed, but hopefully we will be able to use it to do a good race because everything is linked to the start.”

He also had high praise for his ABT CUPRA team-mate Klara Andersson. The two race against each other in World RX.

“Working with Klara is very good. I think she’s motivated,” he opined. “She has very good skills. She has a very good natural feeling that then we need to work together to try to optimise the details and to have the power to gain some time here and there on the track. We are just at the beginning of this working site, but for sure, she listens well. She wants to improve and that’s the main thing. She has good skill, wants to improve, and wants to win, she’s motivated, so I think she has everything to be a good team-mate.”

In their other shared championship, Andersson and Loeb respectively sit seventh and eighth in the World RX RX1e standings. Both drivers, along with points leader Johan Kristoffersson, Kevin and Timmy Hansen, and Timo Scheider raced in Höljes last weekend before setting off to Italy for XE.

Loeb last raced in World RX in 2018 before returning for 2023 in a Lancia Delta. His rallycross partner Guerlain Chicherit is a W2RC team-mate.

“It’s quite different,” he stated in comparing Extreme E to World RX. “Rallycross cars are much lighter. We are driving with slick tyres mainly on tarmac with some some new gravel section, but the cars are lighter, more powerful. It’s a different kind of approach. Here, it’s like off-road racing so the cars are bigger, heavier with big wheels, lot of suspension travel. The format of races are very similar, but the driving of the car is very different.”

The differences expand to rally raid as well, where he races a Prodrive Hunter. He is third in the W2RC standings, having won a record six straight stages at Dakar in January but his championship pursuit is in doubt amid rumours of disappearing sponsorship.

The Hunter is relatively similar to Extreme E’s Spark ODYSSEY 21, and the latter had made its début at the 2020 Dakar Rally, but both disciplines are still far from alike.

“The cars are a bit more similar about the weight and the size and and so on, but here, we are doing a stage of three kilometres long in rally, and we are doing 500-kilometre stages, so it’s another way of driving,” he continued. “Here, you try to practice the course, to know each corner, to optimise the line like in racing. In rally raid, you are discovering always new things, tricky places, dunes, and so on. It’s quite different. I think it’s more close, rallycross from rally raid, except for the the kind of tracks, but yeah, it’s more racing fight than rally raid.”

Besides rally raid, rallycross, and Extreme E, Loeb ran the Race of Champions in January where he represented France alongside Adrien Tambay. Unfortunately, he and his team were eliminated in the first rounds of both the Nations Cup and individual tournament. He won the ROC for the fourth time in 2022.

Loeb will be ABT CUPRA’s starting driver for the first Island X Prix race day on Saturday. Heat racing begins at 10 AM local time (CEST).