Why Loeb's Dakar roll should come as no surprise
Sebastien Loeb may have said goodbye to his chances of victory in the Dakar, but he will learn from his mistake and master it very soon...
So Sebastien Loeb was super-quick on his Dakar Rally debut. No surprises there, he's a nine-time World Rally champion – a bona fide rallying God. Then he rolled. No surprises there either.
The crash made me recall one of the most conversation-killing statements I've ever heard. Then-Volkswagen Motorsport chief Kris Nissen's final words of advice for Audi sportscar star Allan McNish as he prepared to pilot one of his Touareg cars into the desert in 2006: "Allan, you know, these cars can roll really easily…"
I'd helped organize getting Nishy in the car in the first place, and he shot me a look that screamed 'what have you gotten me into?' A shrug of the shoulders from me didn't quite seem to do the trick!
It was a decade ago and we were in El-Kut in Morocco. VW was preparing its Dakar challenge on the northern fringes of the Sahara desert.
McNish had arrived in the wee small hours due to a travel delay, so while he copped some zeds before his run, I got to ride shotgun for the morning with former WRC ace Bruno Saby.
From the passenger seat on a pre-prepared 'stage' hewn into the dunes, the most impressive aspect is how much time you spend in mid-air. There's a constant rat-tat-tat of impact as all four corners soak up the bumpier dunes at high speed, but the overriding sensation – bizarrely – is one of flying through severe turbulence.
After McNish had arrived and had his passenger ride with Saby, he confessed: "I wanted to phone my mum and say goodbye – I thought I was going to die!"
Also super-impressive is the car's stopping power on such a loose surface; the front of the car really dug-in when you wanted it to stop in a hurry – couple that with hitting the wrong sand dune at an inopportune time, you can see why it's so easy to roll these cars, even if Loeb's Peugeot buggy is an altogether different machine from the bulky SUV Touareg.
Stop me if I'm showing off here, but I've also had the privilege of riding alongside Loeb in a Citroen C4 on a mid-Wales forest track in his WRC heyday.
I had that same feeling at the first corner I'd had with Saby in the desert – "Surely he'll brake here? No, the madman is changing up!" – and the fact Loeb chatted away with a boyish insouciance while his arms twirled and his feet danced on the pedals was genuinely mesmerizing.
We did six runs together during that pre-Rally GB test day, before Sebastien muttered something about "needing more fuel".
He ended that day with the car wrecked too, a rock having got jammed under the sumpguard that sent him plunging off the road and into a tree stump that wrecked the car, setting it on fire for good measure too.
Loeb's no stranger to shunts, however brilliant he is. It's all part of the territory, just another challenge to overcome.
From the Monte to Le Mans to Pikes Peak to the WTCC to Dakar, Loeb's adventure has been unique. It might not be the 'Dakar' of old, even from what Saby was facing back in 2006, but we live in different times.
Like everything else, Loeb will surely master the challenge sooner rather than later.
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