These days, Sébastien Loeb doesn’t get behind the wheel of rally cars very often. You can’t blame him; after a decade of dominance in the World Rally Championship with Citroën, it’s only natural that he’d want a new challenge.
His fledgling campaign in the World Touring Car Championship is absorbing his full commitment, so before I ride with him around the forest stage at last weekend’s Goodwood Festival of Speed, he admits it’s been more than a year since he’s driven the DS3 World Rally Car on gravel. Back to Rally Argentina 2013, in fact, where he collected his 78th and final world championship victory.
So, first things first, I have to get into the car, which proves a challenge in itself. Obviously, this kind of thing is far simpler when you’re a dedicated athlete rather than a wheezy car hack who has enjoyed too many corporate sandwiches. After contorting myself through the roll cage struts across the passenger door opening, I struggle to wedge my backside into the Citroën's bucket seat.
The protective seat is designed to hold its occupant firmly in place, with no lateral movement at all, so it is extremely pinched around the hips. Perhaps that morning’s sausage baguette was to blame but I can’t wedge myself right down into the seat – and so it’s a struggle to get the six-point harness secured.
Eventually, with an effort akin to that of pushing a wine cork back into a half-quaffed bottle, I get fully settled into the seat, breathe in as deeply as I can and click the belts into place. I’m in, although I’m not convinced I can extricate myself again in a hurry.
After a word with the Citroën mechanics, Loeb jumps aboard, says hello, and goes through the routine he must have experienced tens of thousands of times before – seat belts and crash helmet on, starter button engaged, gear lever tugged – then drives and the burbling DS3 out of the service area.
Over at the start line of the stage, I’m aware of hundreds of pairs of eyes, some looking through smartphones and expensive-looking cameras, all staring in our direction. This is life as a sporting celebrity from inside a high-speed fishbowl, then.
A smiling marshal – perhaps mistaking me for someone of importance given that I’m sitting alongside a rallying God – hands me a time card and we pull up to the timing beam that marks the start of the stage. Loeb advises me to shut the sliding plastic window in the door of this quarter-million-pound machine because things are about to get very dusty indeed.
I spend the next 2min 40sec in hyperspace. The accompanying video portrays the experience more accurately than any words, but the strangest sensation was my brain’s struggle to align Loeb’s smooth actions with the violence that was going on outside the car.
I was expecting aggressive inputs and flailing limbs in reaction to the changes in speed and direction. But it wasn’t like that; the Frenchman was calm and methodical with his steering, throttle and even braking inputs. There wasn’t a lot of exuberance – instead he manages to combine blinding speed with a Gallic nonchalance.
The result of his style is that the car floats over the bumps, ruts and ripples of the chalky road surface with a fluid forward motion. It’s a privilege to see close up.
Later I remember that Loeb isn’t necessarily seeing the same picture as me out of the windscreen. Or rather, he’s seeing the picture at a different pace, one that has become instinctively second nature to him after more than a dozen years of rallying.