Sebastian Loeb admitted yesterday that any chance of making a one-off switch to Formula 1 had all but vanished, as the FIA have denied the Frenchman the mandatory super license he requires to race in the season finale at Abu Dhabi next weekend. Should the FIA be applauded for sticking to the rules, or should special dispensation be made to one of the most talented drivers in the history of motorsport?
Loeb has regularly been called the Michael Schumacher of rallying. Having won the World Rally Championship every season for the past five years and is closing in on his sixth title this weekend in Wales at the Rally GB. Some have suggested that he should retire, that his domination is not helping the sport. But most are in agreement that Loeb is arguably today’s best all-round driver.
The 35-year-old is a master of his art and what really sets him aside from the likes of Schumacher or Valentino Rossi is that he excels in just about anything he puts his mind to. An approach developed during his younger years as an accomplished gymnast, where he finished fifth in the French national championship. A good gymnast requires a massive amount of discipline and a lot of hard work to reach perfection. Focusing on every detail undoubtedly made him the driver he is today.
As a reward for winning his fifth rally title last year, Citroen sponsor Red Bull handed him a golden ticket opportunity to step out of his comfort zone and into the fast world of Formula 1 by testing with the Red Bull Racing team at Barcelona. He was instantly fast out of the box, setting the eighth quickest time of the 17 drivers who participated that day, with a time of 1m22.503s – a second or so off the ultimate pace. He impressed the Red Bull engineers, who reckoned that he could easily have broken into the top five by simply braking later.
There where a few sceptics who questioned whether Loeb’s test for Red Bull last winter was an accurate indication of his potential in a single-seater. The main suggestion being that there were too many factors skewing the numbers and that he tested at a time when every team was running cars in different specification, and the Red Bull RB4 running with more downforce than most. It’s also worth noting that on the day on which Loeb was eighth fastest, Ferrari test driver Luca Badoer was sixth. A fact not entirely lost on him and good enough reason for Loeb to want to get as much time as possible behind the wheel, if he was serious about switching from rallying.
While Loeb continued to deny that he had any thoughts of making his cameo appearance on the Formula 1 grid throughout the summer, the whole situation gained further momentum when he recently made an appearance in a GP2 test at Jerez with DPR, though he still insisted it had nothing to do with a temporary switch.
“It’s no link (to Abu Dhabi).
“This chance to test in GP2 is a private opportunity from an engineer from the (French) Porsche Cup, where I drove last year, and who now works with DPR.”
The red-flag interrupted test session was a frustrating one for Loeb, after posting the slowest time in dry conditions during the final day of the session. Rain interfered in the morning, and while the skies cleared for the afternoon, the repeated stoppages made it difficult for him to improve on his best lap of 1m28.114s – 2.3s slower than the fastest time of the day.
The disappointment of the test was then followed by the news that despite winning 52 races in WRC and competing in the Le Mans 24 hours, Loeb had not fulfilled the criteria for the necessary super license from the FIA and as such, would not be allowed to participate in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix next month. A decision that seems to defy all logic, especially when you consider Kimi Raikkonen is freely available to hop into a rally car and participate in the WRC, but rally drivers to F1 is a no-no.
With both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships now settled, there needs to be something for the viewers to tune in for when it comes to the last race of the season. Ok so Abu Dhabi is a brand new venue, but on first glimpse the circuit layout appears to be rather lacklustre and unlikely to generate an exciting race. It would have been fascinating to see what Loeb could do among the regular drivers where they will all be learning a brand new circuit.
Instead we’ve been denied the opportunity of seeing him go up against some of the supposed best drivers on the planet. Not only have we missed out, but Formula 1 has missed out on a huge PR boost at a time when its reputation is only just about emerging intact after a season full of scandals and crisis.
Loeb is clearly a talented individual behind the wheel of a car. It could be suggested he has more expertise than several of the rookies currently participating in Formula 1 at the moment. The sporting regulations do contain a provision in exceptional circumstances like his to allow for a super license to be granted:
By exception, if supported by the Safety Commission, the FIA World Motor Sport Council may approve the issue of the Super License to persons judged by the Council to have met the intent of the qualification process.
He could easily have met these provisions and an exception could well have been made, if only it wasn’t for the following:
In this case the F1 team concerned must show that the applicant has driven at least 300km in a current Formula One car consistently at racing speeds, over a maximum period of 2 days, completed not more than 90 days prior to the application.
Highlighting once again that the current testing bad needs to be reviewed as soon as possible, to allow all new drivers (and not just Loeb) the chance to become fully accustomed to the latest Formula 1 cars.
There is little argument to suggest that Loeb is not worthy of a super license and the FIA seem to be very highly-strung on safety issues. They’re looking like bureaucratic fools who need to change with the times. What’s the worst that could happen if Loeb did take part next weekend? Not to be as competitive as the rest of the field? That’s for him to find out. But would he be any less ‘safe’ behind the wheel compared to some of the other drivers drafted in during the course of this season?
Instead we will have to wonder what might have been, had he been given the opportunity. On reflection it’s been a strange ol’ year for Formula 1 hasn’t it? Big name drivers like Loeb and Schumacher almost contesting in the world championship, but just missing out in the end. Who would have thought it at the start of the season?