► Nine-time world rally champ targets Extreme E victory
► Race results haven’t lived up to qualifying times
► Just two rounds to go: Sardinia and UK
The omens are good. The penultimate round of the first Extreme E season is in Sardinia, where World Rally Championship legend Sébastien Loeb’s record is dazzling: four wins, in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2011 – all years in which he went on to win the title.
But Extreme E, the off-road race series for electric cars, isn’t the WRC. And 2021 isn’t a year when Loeb has done much winning. In fact his last WRC win was in 2018, and he’s not been in WRC at all this year. And his ongoing bid for glory in the toughest off-road event of them all, the Dakar Rally, had a particularly grim chapter last January, when he failed to finish in the new Prodrive Hunter.
But the 47-year-old Frenchman – who also held the Pikes Peak hillclimb record for five years, and has finished finished second at the Le Mans 24 Hours – is a competitor through and through, and his focus is currently very much on Extreme E.
‘The battle is interesting, you have a very high level of drivers,’ he told CAR. ‘It’s always a good challenge to try to fight for the win. It’s exciting.’
In the first three rounds of Extreme E’s inaugural season – in Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Greenland – he and co-driver Cristina Gutiérrez have excelled in qualifying, coming top every time. But they’ve not lived up to that in the hunt for race wins, managing a third and two fourths. Going into Sardinia, that’s put them second overall behind Molly Taylor and Johan Kristoffersson.
Loeb points out that this weekend’s Extreme E course has no overlap with anywhere he raced with WRC – ‘We are going to a military area in the south west of Sardinia in a place that I don’t know’ – but concedes he has a general advantage over some of the other drivers when it comes to loose surfaces:
‘The surface is always quite sandy, so the driving style is not very different, but the profile of the roads has been very different. Sometimes it’s very open and flat, sometimes it’s very rough and bumpy like Senegal.’ And that gave him a head start over, say, a driver who had only raced in Formula 3.
And he’s keen to break his Extreme E duck. ‘Sardinia is a beautiful area so we will enjoy the week there and hopefully we can be a bit more ahead this time.
‘We won all the qualifying in the first races of the season and never won the final. We know we have the speed and have a strong team and everything we need to be able to win, so hopefully we can do it this weekend.’
Wins or not, Loeb says he’s been enjoying the experience of competing in Extreme E, and benefitting from its focus on climate change. ‘We go for racing but the goal is always to have a positive impact on a place. I think that’s new for motorsport. Greenland is the place I’ve enjoyed racing the most, and the landscape was amazing. To see a glacier… it’s a place where I’ve never been before, and maybe would never have gone if it hadn’t been for Extreme E.’
He drives for Lewis Hamilton’s X44 team, and says Sir Lewis has been keen to follow their progress, albeit remotely.
‘Lewis didn’t come on any event. Maybe he will come in England [the final round, the Jurassic X Prix, is in Dorset on 18-19 December], we will see. He has a busier schedule than us, and he has a lot to do in Formula 1 to try to get the title. We are in touch with him by video before the races, or after the races. He’s involved, he’s interested in what you are doing. It’s nice to have a boss like him.’
Loeb says he’s been in talks with the team about 2022. ‘I think at the moment the plan is to continue. It’s not confirmed 100% now.'
But before that: Dakar, with the heavily revised Prodrive Hunter T1+. ‘After Sardinia we will go to Dubai and Abu Dhabi to do some tests and a rally, then we go to Saudi for some tests and a rally in December, then we have the last round of Extreme E and then we will leave for Dakar.'