Late last year, shortly after announcing his partial retirement, Sebastien Loeb sealed a stunning ninth consecutive World Rally Championship victory. It is a record unmatched in all of motorsport and is likely to never be beaten marking Loeb as a racing megastar. Upsettingly, Formula One had a chance to embrace the Frenchman but the sport missed out on forming part of his incredible story.
To consider the opportunity that Formula One squandered, it’s worthwhile putting Sebastien’s success into perspective.
Loeb’s ninth world rally title in 2012 was a fitting way to finish his full-time WRC career. He has scored 77 rally victories, almost as many as the next three most successful drivers combined, and has taken way more stage wins, podiums, and points than anyone else in history. Loeb is also the only driver to have won every stage in a single World Championship rally.
His nine world titles are even more amazing when you consider that, during his first season in 2003, Loeb finished second in the championship by just one point. A SINGLE POINT! He went so very close to making it ten in a row (which would have also made him completely undefeated as champion). That’s incredible.
The closest that Formula One has ever come came to that sort of domination was Michael Schumacher’s run of five straight titles at the start of this century. If Ferrari’s scarlet patch felt like it lasted forever, keep in mind that Loeb’s domination has been double the length.
To put nine consecutive titles into perspective, think about this. During those nine years Michael Schumacher won championships for Ferrari, retired, made a comeback, spent three years with Mercedes and retired again.
During those nine years Lewis Hamilton went from racing in Formula Renault, to Formula Three, to GP2, to Formula One, and started 110 Grands Prix for McLaren before switching to Mercedes.
Nine years ago, eight of the drivers on the 2013 Formula One grid were still go-karting. Some of them for the first time.
In a sport that is measured in thousandths of a second, nine years is an eternity.
Across a broad range of motorsport categories, there have been no other champions like Loeb. Giamcomo Agostini won eight titles in the 500cc class of the Motorcycle World Championship, but did not do so consecutively.
Even in terms of all sports that offer just a single World Champion each year, Loeb’s efforts are remarkable and are bettered perhaps only by the likes of Kelly Slater (who won eleven surfing world titles) and Guido Cappellini (who won ten F1 Powerboat World Championships). However, neither of those stars got a run of consecutive victories like Loeb.
As motorsport looks more and more to avoid predictable results in the name of entertainment, it’s quite possible that Loeb will be the last World Champion of his kind.
Amazingly, Loeb’s talents extend beyond the WRC. He has also finished second outright at Le Mans, won the X games, won two Porsche Carrera Cup races at Pau, and is about to start competing in the World Touring Car Championship.
In 2009 he also had a crack at Formula One.
F1’s missed opportunity
Scuderia Toro Rosso endured a turbulent time in 2009. They managed only eight points throughout the season which was a huge comedown from the year before. Sebastien Bourdais was dropped halfway through the year and a 19 year old Jaime Alguersuari was drafted in as his replacement.
When Bourdais was cast aside, Sebastien Loeb expressed an interest in joining the team. Thanks to his Red Bull sponsorship a deal was made between Loeb and Toro Rosso that would see the Frenchman replace Jaime Alguersuari at the final round of the season in Abu Dhabi. The scene was set for one of motorsport’s most successful names to line up for a Formula One Grand Prix.
Loeb might have struggled in a 2009 spec Toro Rosso (remember Luca Badoer in the Ferrari) but it wouldn’t really have mattered. One of the greatest motor racing stories in history was about to include F1.
Sadly, Loeb was not granted an FIA Superlicence which prevented him from entering the race. It was a horrible missed opportunity for F1.
It is important to understand the FIA’s position, and why they were technically right to prevent Loeb from competing. Formula One is dangerous, it is not a finishing school for boy racers and cannot afford to have inexperienced rookies creating an unnecessary hazard.
Having said that, some decidedly average drivers have been able to get an FIA Superlicence. 41 year old Chanoch Nissany got one to take part in practice for the 2005 Hungarian Grand Prix and he was 13 seconds off the leaders pace. He also complained over the radio about “too much grip” and got stuck in his car when he couldn’t take the steering wheel off. Nissany qualified for a Superlicence because he racked up enough miles in a private test with Minardi – although that ignores the fact that during the test he managed to crash into the other Minardi driven by Christijan Albers.
Sebastien Loeb, who finished eighth fastest out of seventeen drivers in an official F1 test at Barcelona in 2008, would have undoubtedly fared much better.
There are also ways to get around the Superlicence requirements. Kimi Raikkonen got a provisional licence that only covered three races at the beginning of the 2001 season because, up until that point, he had only started 23 car races in his entire life.
What a shame that some sort of similar dispensation couldn’t be made for Loeb. Surely his experience at Le Mans would be worth as much as a season of Formula 3 somewhere.
The strict application of the Superlicence rules was disappointing, but so was the fact there was seemingly no way to avoid this foreseeable restriction. Only a few years previously, Scuderia Toro Rosso could have sent Loeb to a test track somewhere in Spain and given him a day to rack up the necessary miles. The sport’s ridiculously strict testing ban prevented such a scenario.
In the end, one of the greatest products of motorsport history was stopped from starting a Grand Prix despite keen interest from all concerned. It would’ve only been a footnote to Sebastien Loeb’s incredible rally career, but it would have given Formula One a place in an amazing story.