Two rounds of the World Rally Championship down and two comprehensive Sebastien Loeb victories. Is this season going to be the Frenchman's perfect game? Probably? Possibly? Hmm, let's go for potentially.
On the face of what we've seen so far - and please don't take this personally, Mikko - but there aren't that many people ready to trouble the five-time World Rally Champion.
That's the line taken by Ford World Rally Team's eternally pragmatic technical director Christian Loriaux, who was recently reported to have voiced, on French television, that "even if we had a helicopter and he [Loeb] was in a Citroen 2CV, he would win".
Those comments may have been taken out of context, although Loriaux's not known for being bashful in his opinion, but you can see the point. Loeb was sublime in Ireland and outstanding in Norway. There was nowhere better than the sodden Irish lanes to see just how good Loeb is. I have to admit, it had crossed my mind that in the absence of a Makinen, Sainz, McRae, Burns or Kankkunen, Loeb's own era was flattering him slightly. Not a bit of it.
Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena on Rally Ireland © LAT
Standing stage-side in Aughnasheelan on the opening day of Rally Ireland was something approaching a seminal moment for me. The standing water was everywhere. The only way to avoid aquaplaning was to have crashed on the previous corner. Loeb feathered his way into view, the Citroen C4 rarely in a straight line as he fed the throttle and brake simultaneously, searching the unbelievably wet asphalt for grip. And when the car did break away, it was no coincidence that it broke away with the nose pointing at the apex. Up until this point, his driving had been mind-blowingly impressive, but this was the pivotal point, a split-second decision: let the car slide or make the most of the good fortune/astonishing skill that had got him to this position? He made the most of it.
The throttle was buried and Loeb made his escape, all four wheels spinning. The left-rear kissed a bank on exit sending a sod or two of turf vertical in a splendidly Gallic gesture of: "Pah, eez zat ze best yu can doooo?"
Loeb's touch in that five or six-second window demonstrated his greatness. Whether the man can walk on water remains unknown, but he can certainly drive on it. And you only had to wait two minutes for his performance to be put into perspective. His rivals invariably made a ham-fisted attempt to make it through the same corner. It was like watching Martin Johnson in a line out of under-11s.
What made Loeb's Irish drive even better was the way he approached the first loop of stages. He was undeniably on the wrong tyre, so he sat there and accepted it. He didn't fight it or try to force it. He drove the car to the limit of its grip and no more. He knew that as soon as he got the car back to Sligo and bolted on the right boots, everything would be okay. He just knew it. Loeb wasn't worried about gifting those around him a second or two here and there. This result was in the bag. He just knew it. And the best bit about Loeb is that he does all that good stuff without a smidge of arrogance. He's probably the best driver the rally world has ever seen, but he's probably the most grounded champion the sport has ever been graced with.
Dare I say it, Citroen's other Sebastien (Ogier) has shown more haughtiness already this season than Loeb's managed in all the years I've known him. Who knows, maybe Ogier will be the one who topples Seb this season. He's already won Monte Carlo.
But what about Ford? What about the Finns? Well, sorry, but they were blown away in the snows of Scandinavia. In their own backyard. Somewhat surprisingly, Jari-Matti Latvala was nowhere, still reeling from the mental downer of having crashed out of the lead of Ireland, and everything Hirvonen could do, Loeb could do a little bit better. Yes, Hirvonen made Loeb work for his win, but how much did the C4 man have in reserve? That, it seems, is something we might never know. When was Loeb really, really pushed? Finland last year when he won his big battle with Hirvonen, you might say, or, more likely, New Zealand the year before when he just lost out to Marcus Gronholm? It's hard to say when he's so far ahead of his contemporaries. Loeb doesn't spend long on the edge. He doesn't like to drive outside himself. He picks his fights. This year there are 12 of them and he's two up already.
So, does that mean a Loeb clean-sweep this season would be a turn-off for WRC? Absolutely not. Yes, I know you'd expect me to say that, but rest assured, this sport's more than just my livelihood, it's my lifelong passion as well. And I'm genuinely excited about the 10 rallies remaining. Particularly the next round in Cyprus.
Petter Solberg drifts the Subaru Impreza during the 2006 Rally Cyprus © LAT
For those not completely up to speed with the latest news in the WRC, the Cyprus Rally returns to the WRC calendar for the first time since 2006 with a mixed-surface route. In an effort to spice things up a bit, the Cypriots have gone and lobbed a day on the tar into the mix. That was interesting enough, but the team's response has made an interesting day one utterly unmissable. The teams felt it was too expensive to take two lots of brakes and suspension, so they asked if they could run on Pirelli's gravel-specification tyres for the whole event - including the day on asphalt. The drivers were pretty much united in their condemnation of this plan, but for us, it couldn't be better. Those who thought they saw some big skids in Norway have seen nothing yet.
It's hard to describe the feeling of driving a rally car shod on knobbly gravel tyres on asphalt. Hard to describe, because there isn't any feeling. There just isn't any. Once those blocks of tread start to warm up and wobble underneath the car, there's no precision and no other way to get through a corner other than vigorous work on the handbrake allied to a big boot of throttle, all topped off with a cloud of smoke. Try and do it any other way and you'll end up, arms crossed, in a miserable world of understeer.
And what makes Cyprus even more interesting is that Loeb will be gunning for win number 50. I know, it only seems five minutes since he was celebrating win number one in Germany in 2002. Loeb's famously unmoved by statistics, but you can bet he'll be keen to bag this one. He's probably not one for cricketing analogies, but he's in the nervous nineties right now. Not that he'll stay there for long.
And, after Cyprus, we're off to Portugal. And, for Portugal, the big man's back. Oh yes, Mr Marcus [Gronholm] is certainly going to give us something to talk about in the Algarve. But that's 'fever' fodder for another column. Tell you what, given that 'Bosse' is a born entertainer, I'll give him a call and ask him to write the next Pace Notes.
Watch this space, you wouldn't want to miss it...
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