Sebastian Loeb…The greatest but still only human!
Some say that all men are created equal while some will tell you that there are a chosen few more equal than others. This is something I certainly believe in myself. Over the years we have seen many great men and women who possessed skills that far out classed their fellow counterparts and opponents. Sebastian Loeb is certainly one such individual.
I could bore you to death and tell you about the statistics of his career but you can look that up on wikipedia in your own time, what I want to tell you about is what I witnessed at the weekend at his last ever WRC event.
As many of you know I am a keen motorsport fan and so I decided about a month ago that I would travel to France to see Loeb in action one last time and maybe get him to sign a photo or two. So last Thursday I packed my bag and my camera gear and off I went on my way to Strasbourg. After a round about journey I finally arrived around lunch time, picked up my dinky Peugeot rent a car, programmed my sat nav and off I went into town. First stop autograph signing! Seb not due till 3.30pm, I arrived at 12.45pm to be met by an eagerly waiting queue of fellow autograph hunters at least 40 strong at this stage. Within 10 minutes of joining this mostly French band of merry rally fans the line had swelled to well over 200. How I passed the next three hours is still beyond me but I will tell you that I missed him by only a couple of minutes, gutted was not the word!!
However fortune favours the brave, and so on I went in my quest to meet the great man. I headed over to the special stage area where while waiting for the drivers to make their way to the cars I met an elderly French couple who were also looking for autographs. I managed to call over a few Irish competitors that I spotted and got them to sign his programme. It was then he asked who I was looking for and I told him of my hunt for Loeb’s autograph. It was at this point he smiled and told me he was from Haguenau himself and knew Loeb. I was sceptical to say the least but after much reassurance in very broken English I decided I had nothing to lose by sticking around. Sure enough he appeared last as he had the honour of being the last car onto the stage and started making his way towards us. I had my photo from Rally Ireland 2009 ready to go with pen in hand knowing that this would possibly be my last chance of an autograph. When suddenly my new French friend called ‘Sebastian’, he turned and smiled and came over to greet his fellow Haguenaut, after much chatter in French the old man turned to me and pointed to the picture and said something to Loeb who immediately turned to me ‘Ah Irlande!’ he said, ‘yes’ I replied like a blubbering idiot as he took the pen and signed the photo. He smiled said Au revoir to us and was on his way!
Now if the story ended there that I think it would be an amusing tale, but it doesn’t it goes on. The next three days were filled with wading through mud caked fields of sweet corn and vineyards. With the beautiful Alsace country side erupting every so often with the loud thunder of a rally car. Now having been to many rallies around Ireland I have to admit I was blown away by the sheer volume of people just out to see Loeb one last time. On Friday Loeb’s fellow Frenchman Sebastian Ogier had become WRC Champion after his main opponent had failed to win the special stage, but no one seemed to care, it was all about one man, it reminded me in some ways of the Rumble in the Jungle, Loeb the great champion, Ogier the pretender. Just as the people of Kinshasa had embraced Ali as their own and ignored Foreman it seemed the same was happening here, Ogier might as well have been from the Moon as his countrymen only cared about Loeb.
They thronged the ditches, wall, roofs of houses and everything else they could to see the action. But for them there would be no glorious ending to a glittering career of the onetime gymnasts. Just 2 kms into stage 1 on Sunday morning Loeb’s beautifully livered Citroen DS3 stepped out at the back, as soon as the tyres touched the wet grass he and co-driver Daniel Elena were all but passengers as the car slid of the road down an embankment and came to rest on its roof, it was all over. I had found a lovely 90 degree left hand turn a further ways into the stage when the news broke. Somebody had a radio with them and suddenly word came through, all of a sudden there were gasps among the crowd and yes grown men wept, women cried and children too. With my limited handle of French I was unsure of what had happened, I figured Loeb had crashed and seeing the reaction of those around me I feared the worst, I asked the man nearest me where Loeb and Elena ok, yes he replied safe and sound but not able to continue. The reaction of the fans was unreal, a sense of loss and sadness seemed to descend over the crowd as they came to terms that their champion would not be passing them one last time.
Loeb and Eleana arrived in Haguenau for the special stage that they were meant to take part in later that day to a hero’s welcome, they walked around signing autographs and taking photos with fans and then were driven through the stage in an old Citroen waving to the fans that had come to see them. As I made my way back to my hotel I thought to myself how much of a pity it was that Loeb’s day had ended on a bittersweet note for him crashing out on his home rally and last event. But the more I thought of it the more it seemed to me that faith maybe had intervened to remind the man himself that he was still human and still capable of the odd mistake. If so well then there is no doubt of his greatness for if faith must intervene then that is proof enough that he is one of the chosen few. Au Revoir Seb and thanks for the memories.