A few years ago, I sat alongside Sebastien Loeb for a day’s testing. He was a relatively obscure French youngster then; he hadn’t even graduated from front-wheel-drive Saxo to the Xsara WRC in which he would start his campaign of world domination.
He barely spoke English, too. But he was an unassuming, pleasant guy who seemed bemused but not upset at the prospect of having a lardy Ulsterman alongside him as he thrashed around a gravel test track at Issoire.
I ended up reporting on quite a few Loeb WRC rally wins, including his first, but none of his titles. And I haven’t seen him in a few years.
But yesterday our paths crossed once more, when I travelled to Silverstone to watch him get back into a Formula One car.
It was but a shakedown ahead of his outing at the official F1 test at Barcelona, and conditions were foul – either freezing cold or wet, and often both - but Seb was instantly fast, and instantly committed through Copse corner as he tried to get his head around downforce, not to mention the concept of staying off the gravel instead of sliding sideways across it.
He’s still the same bloke I met in Issoire, too. He put up with Silverstone’s finest cuisine as he chomped through sausage and mash at lunchtime (food of champions; I always knew it), and responded politely when provoked on the subject of his legacy as a five-times world champion in one of world rallying’s weakest eras.
He even nodded in agreement when I suggested that conditions in Northamptonshire were approach those of many a Monte Carlo Rally. “It’s useless weather as a warm-up to Barcelona,” he said. “At least, I hope it will be useless, because I want it to be warmer in Spain.”
Then an afterthought, and a grin. “Still, I think the complex at Woodcote will be good practice for Rally GB in a few weeks…”
Loeb has never won in Wales, and he is conscious that a steady drive to a podium finish will be enough to secure Citroen the manufacturers’ title. But I hope the French manufacturer allows him off the leash. Brilliance is not there to be stifled, after all.