Reigning world rally champion Sébastien Loeb signed a new deal to remain with Citroën for two more years last week. Given that Volkswagen was trying its hardest to spirit him away to join its new WRC assault, it might seem like Loeb has made a conservative decision. In fact, it is anything but.
Loeb has been a key part of Citroën’s WRC driver line-up since 2000, but the smart money was on him jumping ship to develop the Polo WRC challenger next year and then lead VW’s attack in 2013.
The German firm is reported to have offered him a head-turning contract involving somewhere in the region of 13 million euros to develop the Polo into a winner.
Another factor that appeared likely to pave the way for Loeb’s exit from Citroën was a shift of power within the team. More than a decade ago, Citroën built the team around Loeb’s emerging talents. He has outshone every team-mate he’s been paired with, including former world champions Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae.
The man from Alsace forged an effective working relationship with his mentor and Citroën team boss Guy Fréquelin, himself a former driver. But Fréquelin retired at the end of 2007 and was replaced by Olivier Quesnel, who brought a new way of working to the squad.
Key to Quesnel’s approach has been championing young upstart Sébastien Ogier as the team’s next rallying hope. Ogier became Loeb’s team-mate at the start of this year and Quesnel decided that the two Frenchmen would enjoy equal number status.
If you’d delivered Citroën seven world rally titles and 66 wins, do you think your nose might be put slightly out of joint if you didn’t get preferential treatment over your junior team-mate?
Gossip in the WRC service area suggests Loeb and Quesnel have never gelled. Indeed, I think it is telling that Loeb only plumped for Citroën after the intervention of one of Quesnel’s bosses, a PSA Peugeot Citroën board member called Jean-Marc Gales.
Loeb could have signed for the German firm, which probably would have built its team around him. By staying at Citroën, he accepts he’s going to have a fight on his hands, so he deserves credit for his willingness to go toe-to-toe in the same machinery the only driver fast enough to beat him at the moment.