Sebastien Loeb tells an engaging tale of his fans in Japan. The same group of people are always waiting for the Frenchman when he arrives in Tokyo's Narita airport. They then follow him right through the recce and the rally. That doesn't just mean standing at the side of the road waving to him or out front of his corner of the service park, politely calling his name (cheering's not really part of the Japanese culture). They do all of that, but they're also waiting for Loeb in the lobby of his hotel every morning. Just to catch a glimpse.
Loeb told parts of this tale in the pre-event press conference for last week's Rally Japan. Loeb talked warmly about the fans, about how he felt in some way endeared to them. Kimi Raikkonen, sitting alongside his fellow Citroen driver, looked somewhat incredulous at hearing the tale of such fervent interaction.
I decided to join the fans in the lobby on Saturday morning, to get a closer look. He wasn't wrong, from around seven in the morning, upwards of a hundred wide-eyed locals gathered in the Sheraton Hotel. Every time the lift pinged down from one of the 32 floors above, a hush fell over the crowd. This time? Not this time. Back to the giggling and non-stop chatter from the men and women.
And there he was. Looking like most Europeans who had made the trip east - tired. Tired or not, he still managed a broad grin, taking the first pen passed to him and starting to sign everything placed in front of him. The level of interest in Loeb and his mates is the same as Argentina, but in Japan it's just so much more ordered. There's no pushing and shoving; even when they're waiting to catch a glimpse of their hero, they wait in line and take their turn. These people take polite to another level. And it's a humbling experience to be among them.
I asked Loeb if all the attention bothered him.
"No," was the reply. "They're fanatical. It's good for the sport. I don't know anywhere else that I really have to bring another bag with me to take home all of the gifts these people give to me. I like it. It's nice for me to see them."
Sebastien Loeb © Sutton
That's Loeb for you, though. He's as disarming as they come, a genuine people's champion.
He didn't have a great event last weekend, though, did he? Much as he likes the place and the people, he's not so hot on the south Hokkaido roads. And it showed. Running first on the road on Friday, Loeb swept the loose gravel and cleaned the line for the drivers following. Day one done and he was the thick end of a minute down on the leader. And not hugely confident about making that time back over Saturday and Sunday.
In the end, he couldn't do it. Loeb's seemingly impenetrable armour had been sliced wide open in Japan.
The stages in Sapporo are probably the softest of the year, leaving them wide open to the vicious traction of World Rally cars. Not known to be the most merciful machines, the Citroen C4 WRC and its Ford equivalent soon cut two tracks deep into the road. So deep are the ruts that when the crews arrived for the recce, the scars left by the cars last time they were there were still present. The organisers had optimistically lobbed a load of stone in, but it wasn't going to make any difference.
That's what caused Loeb so much grief. There's absolutely no doubt that he is still the fastest driver of a World Rally car anywhere on the planet, but his aversion to driving on stages like these is well known. Loeb's car rarely - very rarely - gets beyond his control. He just doesn't do that. While some drivers are happy to get out of their comfort zone and stay there until the inevitable corner comes and catches them out, Loeb's not. And driving a World Rally car on a rutted road is not a nice feeling. No matter how good the suspension on his Citroen, the thing still hops and skips way too much for Loeb's liking.
You know when you pull into the inside lane of the motorway and the near-side front wheel sometimes picks up a well-worn track in the asphalt, causing the car to follow that line, tugging the wheel in your hand, that's the sort of thing we're talking about. Except it's a hundred times worse, because the car's probably sideways at mammoth speeds and the trees are all around.
Sebastien Loeb © Sutton
The problem for Loeb in Japan was that he, understandably, wants to win the world title - his seventh - at home in France on the next round. And he knew, if he dropped the C4 chasing a needless win in Japan, he could kiss goodbye the opportunity to give his home fans something to really get excited about.
With Ogier winning, Loeb couldn't finish any lower than sixth to give himself the shot he wanted. And guess what? Loeb ran sixth for most of the event. Such is his inner confidence that Loeb knows he can go to France and win. And such is his maturity, professionalism and all-round ability, he can dial himself into the pace and sit there until the finish.
I'm not saying he didn't push, he did - but when he wasn't taking his usual stack of time out of the rest of the field, he had no appetite for going up a gear and riding his luck in the ruts. He settled for fifth and what's almost certainly going to be another championship in his own backyard.
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