Is Sebastien Loeb the luckiest driver in the history of the World Rally Championship?
When the eight-time world champion rolled out of Rally of Portugal last week, he resigned himself to losing his lead in his pursuit of an ninth straight title. And he did, indeed, lose that lead. For a while.
But by Sunday evening, Loeb was back leading the championship again. Incredible.
Or incroyable as the man himself might say.
Look back down the years. There was the time he broke his arm in 2006, but still won the title after Marcus Gronholm rolled his Ford in Australia, ruining the Finn's chances of challenging.
Sebastien Loeb has made his own luck in the WRC © LAT
Three years later he won the title by one point from Mikko Hirvonen, how lucky was it that Ford team principal Malcolm Wilson didn't follow Citroen's lead and switch his drivers in Sardinia that year? Had the Cumbrian done that, Loeb's tally would have been one down.
And then there have been occasions when a Citroen hit trouble on a WRC round, but you could pretty much guarantee it wouldn't be the one with Loeb's name emblazoned on the windows.
And then there was last week in Portugal...
So, is Loeb the luckiest man in the history of the World Rally Championship? No. He's the most talented.
And he's surrounded by drivers who consistently fail to capitalise on the odd slip-up from the sport's finest and fastest.
Lots has been made in the past of Loeb's luck in keeping his car running when his former team-mates Dani Sordo or Sebastien Ogier hit trouble. But, here's the thing: watch Loeb drive. Go and grab some onboards and watch him on any surface. Then watch the other drivers.
You won't see a straighter approach from anybody. There's minimal input into the car; the #1 Citroen is all about an economy of effort from man and machine for maximum efficiency and reward. A very long time ago, Loeb figured out that forcing a car to go quickly wasn't the fastest way: it had to be coaxed not canned.
And that's what Loeb himself is all about as well. He doesn't push himself over his limit, he doesn't risk all, he drives at a supremely fast and comfortable level. It just so happens that his normal pace requires the rest of the drivers to take risks to keep up. He's simply that good.
And that's why his car doesn't break very often. He doesn't ask difficult questions of it or force it to run over rocks through every other corner. He's nice to it and it's nice to him.
Yes, fortune has favoured Loeb in the past, but those moments of fortune only stand out because of who he is and how rarely he makes mistakes. When Loeb does darken the door of Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck, he usually finds her in benevolent mood.
There was plenty of talk in Portugal last week about how fortunate Loeb had been. But not many seemed to remember he'd been pretty unfortunate in his mis-reading of the road in Santa Clara last Thursday night.
Instead of Loeb's luck, the focus of the conversation should have been on the woeful efforts of those attempting to make the best of Loeb's early inversion. Silver platters were at the centre of conversations everywhere.
And it really was that bad. Ford drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg dropped the ball in the most terrible fashion last week.
Remember Ben Kay thundering towards the Australian line for a certain try in the Rugby World Cup final, November 22, 2003 - only to fumble the pass?
Petter Solberg recovered to third after going off in the rains © LAT
Well the Latvala-Solberg partnership was worse than that.
Both drivers took umbrage with AUTOSPORT's report that they had crashed in Portugal last week. Sorry boys, you were off the road. And whether it's a Latvala-style Mexican roll or a slow drop into a ditch, it doesn't matter - the result is the same. The cars were not where they should have been and they didn't get there by themselves. Granted, Latvala's car did suffer damage from a rock before it went off the road, but nobody else hit that rock...
Accepted, there is the caveat of the conditions. They were appalling. But everybody else got through and, harsh and hard as this sounds, that's all that counts.
If anybody had good fortune in Portugal, it was Ford itself. Had the organisers not called a halt to Friday's proceedings through the afternoon (saving Solberg 15 minutes in Rally 2 penalties - you can't be penalised if the stage hasn't run), the third place for Solberg would never have happened and he would have been 19 points behind Loeb and not four.
The people I feel most sympathy for in Portugal are Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen. They drove brilliantly, absolutely brilliantly.
They watched everybody drive away at great pace on Thursday night and Friday morning. And then they watched them go off. And then they controlled the rally through some astonishingly difficult conditions to take an extremely well-deserved victory on Sunday afternoon. Only to have it taken away in the stewards' room.
It seems fashionable to label Hirvonen a number-two driver these days, a no-hoper in the championship stakes. Well, let's wait and see. The kind of maturity he demonstrated on Portugal usually pays dividends. And, as for him being slow, not many could hold a candle to him on the fastest of the fast in Finland last year could they?
Harsh as the exclusion was, it was the only option for the stewards. The clutch did not comply and the jury's out on the turbocharger. What was the alternative to exclusion? A big time penalty? What sort of message does that send out? Five minutes is the same as a SupeRally stage these days. What about a fine? Equally, another potential wrong message, installing the belief that teams can buy their way out of trouble.
The car was illegal. Fact. Therefore it had to be excluded. It's black and white. Does this mean Ford should have been excluded for its lightweight windows on the same rally in 2007? Yes.
Richard Burns lost his Argentina win in 2002 for running a flywheel that was a packet of crisps too light. Granted, there's more of a case to argue for a performance advantage of a key transmission part, but underweight is underweight.
So, well done stewards, but now we want consistency. Woe betide any wavering on future decisions of a similar nature.
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