Sébastien Loeb may be destroying the World Rally Championship by just being too good. Is there hope for his competitors?
There are two ways of looking at Sébastien Loeb's complete and utter domination of modern rallying. The first way says that we should be glad to witness a driver operating at such a rarified level, a level that few other drivers in motorsport, let alone rallying, have ever reached. The names Fangio, Clark, Senna and Schumacher spring to mind - drivers who seemingly always had more in reserve, who could demoralise the opposition to such an extent that they essentially gave up before even starting the next race.
The second way of looking at the Era of Séb says that he's killed the WRC stone dead, and the other teams and competitors just haven't noticed yet.
It's no coincidence that the four names cited above are all from the world of Formula 1, for Loeb's driving has far more in common with circuit racing than it does with the balls-out flamboyance of Toivenen, Kankkunen and McRae. His style is millimetre-perfect car placement, a series of interconnected straight lines scribing the fastest possible route between corners. No wasted time sliding the car at lurid angles, just metric precision and impeccable car control. It's devastatingly quick, but usually it'snot particularly entertaining to watch because he obviously has so much more in reserve. Impressive, absolutely, but not entertaining - and let's not forget, this sport's real purpose is to entertain.
In an article written last year, Autosport's rallies editor David Evans asked, 'Has Loeb ever really been pushed?'. He thinks not, and I'm inclined to agree. Loeb's never had to extend himself out of his comfort zone, never really been forced to drive at 10/10ths for an entire rally. Marcus Gronholm and Petter Solberg may have worried him once or twice but only on a single stage, never over the course of a whole rally.
But Gronholm is retired from the sport now, one-off appearances notwithstanding, and Solberg is running a customer car rather than a full works Citroën. If nothing goes wrong with Loeb's C4 WRC on any of the remaining rallies this season, he stands a very good chance of winning them all. This is great for him and Citroën, yet between them they're killing the sport faster than budget cuts and global recession ever could. Why should other teams even bother showing up when no car/driver combination at 10/10ths (and sometimes beyond) appears to be able to come anywhere near Loeb at 7/10ths?
It frustrates me somewhat because unlike the Ferrari/Schumacher years in F1, you can't really dislike Loeb for his dominance. He's too nice, too humble about his inhuman skills. And they are inhuman; anyone who can jump out of a WRC car and into an F1 car (or a Le Mans car, for that matter) and post competitive times has a level of natural talent and feel for a car that 99% of professional drivers don't even have.
The problem is that I can't help feeling that the viewing public, be they out in the rain watching the stages live or at home in front of the TV, want to see drivers pushing to their limits. They want to see big skids, armfuls of oversteer, heroic drivers overcoming treacherous conditions and recalcitrant cars to post the fastest time. They don't want to see a tiny Frenchman effortlessly floating through the stages, making it look like child's play whilst his rivals fall ever further behind.
Watching Loeb cruise to yet another victory is about as interesting as watching already-dry paint dry even further. If he never has to push to his own limits, where's the challenge? Where's the glorious, heart-stopping sight of car and driver on the absolute ragged edge, like the many YouTube video clips of Kankkunen or McRae?
If Loeb continues with rallying for much longer - and he's said he'll walk if the WRC switches to the draconian Super 2000 rules - then perhaps the only way to prevent the Loeb/Citroën steamroller is to institute a sliding scale of performance penalties. Success ballast is usually used to limit the performance of a faster car, but in this case I'm suggesting it be used to alter the performance of a faster driver. I'm usually against such artificial devices for spicing up the competition, but in this case I can't see any other way of levelling up the field.
Imagine Loeb, car laden with a full 100kg of success ballast, fighting to contain the lighter unballasted machines of Ogier, Hirvonen and Latvala. He'd have to start pushing. He'd have no choice but to extend himself out of his comfort zone to make his Citroën C4 dance as it used to.
I believe that then and only then, would we really get to see the best of him. It would make for closer and more interesting rallies, which in turn would attract more spectators, which in turn would attract more teams and manufacturers. Forget Super 2000, this is the way forward.