Is Loeb regretting his move to Hyundai?

Is Loeb regretting his move to Hyundai?From Chris Biewer [ 02/02/2019 ].
Click to read all other WRC WRC News.
 

This is just a thought to throw out to all the amazing WRC fans. And Loeb fans, and Hyundai Fans, and Citroen fans, etc.... We do have to give Séb Loeb that in Monte Carlo he competed in a brand new car for him, new manufacturer, new team, and he did so with hardly any testing, on the back of doing Dakar in a beach buggy type of vehicle. And I am sure Dakar has less asphalt, less snow and less ice than Monte has, so quite a different challenge. Yet, I must admit Séb Loeb, as big a fan of him as I am, gives me a lot of head scratching these days. For me one strong point of Loeb always was his loyalty, he owns PSA dealerships, he spent over 20 years in PSA cars, his moving to Hyundai was nothing short of a shock, even though he may have had his reasons and plainly: It is far more a lost opportunity for Citroen than it is for Loeb!

Still, his Monte performance then was the next shock. Well, that is overdoing it, his leaving PSA was the far bigger shock. And yes, new team, very little testing....

Yesterday the news he crashed a car in testing. Yet more head scratching, this is not the Séb Loeb as I know him!

So allow me the provocative question: Is he regretting his move to Hyundai?

Early, days, only one event, but the initial shock was not helped when we learned Loeb signed for Hyundai without ever testing the car? If it is any good, if it suits him, he never knew/tested it before he signed the contract! That doesn't sound professional as you would expect from a 9 times World Champion, at least to me it doesn't!

If you see Ogier i.e., when Volkswagen so suddenly closed its doors, Ogier tested the Toyota and thought it wasn't very good. OK, he may have been wrong there, but at least he tested it. And he tested the M-Sport Fiesta and was impressed before he signed, and then won titles with it. And he had a secret test in the Citroen C3 before he decided to leave M-Sport, and won his first rally with it.... Why did Loeb never test the Hyundai before he signed a multi year deal?

Fast forward Monte:

Did you notice that at the finish Loeb was visibly and even spokenly disappointed with his performance? I hope I wasn't right with my fears, but with this return he is not doing himself any favours for his immaculate name of being the best rally driver ever. In the Citroen at least he knew he could perform, see his win in Catalunya only 3 events ago. In the Hyundai being 2 minutes down on team mate Neuville, when it was Loeb who had the faultless drive, not Neuville, that doesn't do him justice. And between the lines of Loeb's talks I have the impression he never found a set up he liked, same as Mikkelsen.

Mikkelsen is an interesting comparison actually when we talk the Hyundai. Mikkelsen won rallies in the Volkswagen. Many people say the Citroen C3 is a diva, but Mikkelsen finished 2nd in 1 of only 3 starts in the C3! In the Hyundai Mikkelsen so far he had 17 starts and how often did he match that 2nd place? NEVER! NOT A SINGLE TIME IN 17 TRIES! Where does this make the C3 the bitch and the Hyundai the better car?

That said, there is yet another observation: How often does Mikkelsen complain about the Hyundai? And how often did Loeb complain? Shows that Loeb is a very unique World class driver! Without disrespect, but Mikkelsen often talks of set up, handling, in Monte '19 he had a couple of fast times and explained it that "Now I am used to this car" - after 1 1/2 years he is used to it? Hope our 9 times World Champion doesn't tell us one day he needs 1 1/2 years to understand a car. If there were any problems, Loeb never complained about them in public, a true class driver and gentleman all at once. It was already surprising to see Loeb talking about disappointment of his performance at the end of Monte Carlo.

And that is why I can't shake off the fear that Séb Loeb is not doing himself any favours with this quite extensive program at Hyundai (he signed for 2 years without even testing?!)

....seeing that one more stage and Loeb would have been even 5th behind Latvala. That Tänak stopped to change a wheel and still beat Loeb, and had Meeke not had problems he would have been ahead of Loeb too. And this is Monte, Loeb's event, how will Loeb do better in Sweden?

Corsica may be a chance for a Loeb victory, maybe he makes a decision after Corsica? AAH...! What decision?

That is another aspect in this story. I do find Loeb's contract very interesting: He has signed for 6 starts in 2019. Only 3 of which are confirmed: Monte, Sweden & Corsica. That means Loeb does 3 of the first 4 events - and 3 of the last 10 events and not even Loeb or Hyundai knows which events these might be? After Dakar straight to Monte, straight to Sweden, straight to Corsica and the rest of the year at the beach bar 3 weekends?

How does Hyundai feel about that? Yes, Sordo is a very capable driver for whatever WRC event, but if Hyundai signs and pays Loeb with the target of the makes title.... I remember something else. Sordo is guaranteed 8 starts. And how many starts is Mikkelsen guaranteed? 14? WRONG! There were extensive reports that Hyundai didn't like Mikkelsen's results and that he should deliver more in the first rounds 2019. To me that sounds like he is on probation, and yet Hyundai gave Paddon the boot despite a fine 2nd place in Australia (Mikkelsen never was 2nd in a Hyundai).

This is not written anywhere, but I have Sordo on 8 rounds, Mikkelsen under probation and if Loeb says he wants some more starts, Hyundai is NOT going to say 'No'!

I talked to some guys that shared an interesting thought with me - especially one of our fan-photographers David Owen from Wales even got me onto the ball: "Had Loeb suddenly won Monte, or at least been on par with Ogier and Neuville, this could tempt him for more. I don't know how his Hyundai contract is knit, but seeing it the other way round, Monte 4th, over 2mins off the pace, let's say Sweden 6th as he is not exactly a Scandinavian snow expert, Corsica similar to Monte*, I could well imagine that he says "You know what, I am doing WRX now!"

* And this is an interesting - if not shocking - observation from the statistics that I like to make:

In Monte Loeb won two stages. Interestingly in comparing the Super-Sebs: Loeb won the 3rd stage in a new car, Ogier won 'only' the 4th stage in a new car.

But how did Loeb win his two stages? To say it in a funny way: He won these stages because he was on completely the wrong tyre and therefore he was the only driver on the right tyres for this particular stage! Sounds confusing, but this also shows the fascination of this sport:

Despite Toyota's complains of the cancellation of SS3 in Monte, Loeb was the only driver to profit from this cancellation! SS3 & 5 were snow and ice, SS4 was dry and Loeb had fresh dry tyres, he should have been ahead by minutes. It becomes more clear in the 2nd Friday loop: Compared to Ogier, in SS6 Loeb lost 37s, in SS7 he gained 10s, in SS8 he lost these same 10s again. So he won SS7 but counts a net loss of 37secs, so his only stage wins were down to the wrong strategy! He can't play these games in Corsica, so if his Corsica performance is similar to Monte, it will not be good for his name and records!

So what then? And what could have been had Loeb trusted PSA more?

Yet another point of interest is that Citroen CEO Linda Jackson said they wanted Loeb and Loeb had no interest in Monte (Dakar) and Sweden (Snow), it was when she said they can't guarantee a 3rd car from Corsica onwards when Loeb left. So here again Loeb's acting is a little strange for the loyal guy he always was.

Sorry if I jumped subjects here a little sudden, but this is an important aspect. If you see press releases where Loeb announced his Dakar participation, Dakar clearly took priority over any given Monte start for Loeb! And bosses want to see results and here Citroen is a little comparable to the Hyundai Mikkelsen probation situation. Citroen CEO Linda Jackson always said they want a 3-car-team there is always a door open for Loeb, only that was before Abu Dhabi left as a sponsor. With all that C3 WRC is a diva talk, PSA bosses wanted to see how their C3 WRC delivers under Ogier before they commit to a 3rd car, same as Hyundai wants to see Mikkelsen deliver in the first rounds - why if his 14 round contract is secure? Mikkelsen has not delivered, Ogier's C3 delivered Monte Carlo as Citroen win #100! But you couldn't know beforehand, had Ogier shown a poor performance in the C3, why would Citroen then spent more money into the sinking ship? There definitely wasn't to be a 3rd C3 in Monte or Sweden, and aparently Loeb was perfectly fine with that. But Linda Jackson (and Pierre Budar) as well said repeatedly they signed Ogier to win the manufacturers title and for that they need a third car. And guess what: How come Mads Ostberg is in a factory C3 R5 for WRC2 Pro? Why did Citroen sign him again (at the expense of future French star Stéphane Lefebvre by the way!) and why is Ostberg prepared to go R5? Because both of them have options for more. Options that Citroen lost with Loeb's departure! It's not guaranteed a 3rd C3 WRC is to happen, and that is why Loeb left, but if the WRC makes title is in serious reach, Citroen is not going to end the 2019 season as a 2-car team, that is fact!

But back to Loeb:

OK, if he wanted to do Corsica, Hyundai gave him a guarantee that Citroen did not give him, so that is indeed somewhat understandable. But let's go back to last year: Citroen begged Loeb to do Deutschland, and that with some force. Meeke was sacked and Ostberg, as much as I like and respect him, he never was going to do well in Deutschland. Citroen begged Loeb several times to do Deutschland and he said he had more interest in WRX, or lying at the beach! And even for 2019 Loeb's focus was WRX before Peugeot pulled the plug.

I don't know what fascination Loeb sees in WRX, I don't see any fascination in it. And he wasn't especially successful in it either. After Le Mans and WTCC that is the first series where Loeb did not really succeed. But here again 2019 might be his time! Audi, Ford and Peugeot all pulled out, VW pulled the plug on the Solberg team, but there is rumour VW might do it in some way. And Hyundai is there via Marcus Grönholm's team and by all rivalry Loeb and Grönholm always respected each other a lot. 2019 would be the perfect time for Loeb to prove his point in WRX, never mind which car, and if it is for Grönholm, that is second best to having his own team!

Which again leads me to muse (I don't know if it is fact, it is a viable thought however) that Loeb's strange program at Hyundai with apparently 6 starts total "let's do 3 of the first 4 rounds and then see" - after WRC round4 Corsica he could still join a complete season WRX.

In WRC, we only have had Monte now, a super exciting Monte.

It is early days, but Loeb himself said at the Rallye Monte Carlo finish line he was disappointed of his performance.

Yes, only one rally happened in WRC 2019, he just came from Dakar, he had no testing, everything was new.....

But seeing Loeb's splits and stage times, compared to Latvala, who never was a Monte specialist, to Tänak who had time to change a wheel and still beat Loeb, Loeb being over 2mins down on team mate Neuville in the same car and arch rival Ogier who himself had to get used to his car, this all lets me wonder: Does Loeb really like the Hyundai?

Yet for Hyundai this is a genius marketing trick, they get recognition only for the name Loeb, it is Loeb's reputation that is in danger if he can't improve on performance. And here again, Sweden was never his most successful ground, Corsica he can't play the tyre tricks that gained him his only stage wins in Monte....

And exactly here I do have a shocking comparison:

Loeb did not beat Neuville on a single stage except the two with the "wrong" tyres - and amazingly including the one where Neuville went off!

Loeb did not beat arch rival Ogier in his own ex-car on a single stage except the two with the "wrong" tyres! Only 3 events ago Loeb beat Ogier in the troublesome C3, now Ogier has the apparently troublesome car and beats Loeb by over 2 minutes?

How is that going to change for Sweden, which is not his most successful surface? And for Corsica, where he can't profit from tyre gambles? And since when is Loeb crashing in testing? And no Loeb starts are confirmed after Corsica?

If I was Hyundai: if Mikkelsen doesn't get faster while doing less mistakes (and less complaints) at the same time, and that soon, I would want Loeb in Mikkelsen's car wherever possible, even if he isn't as fast as Neuville. If I was Loeb, I don't know if Loeb regrets the move to Hyundai, but I would be thinking "I am ruining my name here and I have an open bill in WRX and my contract gives me flexibility post Corsica..."

Just a thought, but what a thought!