“Don’t worry about any of these buttons on the steering wheel. To start it, flick this ignition lever forward then press that button. Make sure you’re in neutral. The display’s up there. Pull back this lever to go up a gear, push away to go down.”
This is all said to me in a thick French accent. It belongs to Sebastien Loeb, five-time World Rally champion, and he’s explaining his own Citroen C4 WRC car to me, just before I head out and drive it on a gravel stage in southern France.
I’m terrified. We arrived here five minutes before, a man has driven me once around the stage in a Citroen van, I’ve had time to put on some overalls, the head of Citroen Racing PR has given me the ‘please don’t crash our car’ chat, and then those instructions from Sebastien.
“That’s it?” I ask incredulously. A Gallic shrug, a smile, he leans in quickly to check the handbrake is off, then slams the door shut. Oh dear.
It’s the lack of knowledge that’s scary. What’s the clutch like? Does the C4 turn over quickly? Do I dare try and figure out how that handbrake works? Having Loeb standing there watching me trying to remember what order to press the buttons in doesn’t exactly help.
It won’t fire instantaneously and I can report that the clutch is, well, a sod. Really, really sharp biting point and you need more revs than you’d think. It’s not the smoothest getaway I’ve ever managed as the car lurches from too much right foot to too little, but it’s rolling without stalling.
Now where? Someone points to a bush. Beyond that is the stage. So in a £750,000-plus rally car, my first significant act is to drive over a shrub.
But I’m mightily honoured to be sitting here. I’m in the most successful rally car in history, at its most technologically-advanced point before rule changes make it simpler, with the world’s most successful rally driver watching. Nerves, though, are forgotten as I lean on the accelerator for the first time - there’s a purity to the power delivery that shocks, but oddly the engine isn’t what sets this car apart. The 2.0-litre turbo-charged motor manages an impressive 315bhp, but some road cars are more surprising in raw pace.
No, it’s all about the ride in this C4 - the way this thing soaks up all the bumps is astonishing. It flows silkily over them. Of course, the brakes are superb (even on ice you can generate about 1g of braking) and I never get anywhere near locking them up, but the amount of feel coming back from the chassis is wonderful. I’ve driven historic racing cars on tarmac where I’ve got less idea of what’s going on underneath me than I did pootling around on gravel in this C4.
Understeer never even crosses my mind. Nor does changing gear present too many problems, it’s a clinical process with a no-questions-asked reaction from the car. You command, it obeys - just pull or push the lever next to the steering wheel. This takes a bit of getting used to. The first time I went for a downshift I tugged at fresh air on the left-hand side. Like you would in a normal car. Panic. Curse. Can’t believe I’ve forgotten how to work this thing already. Pull the only lever to hand. That’s changed up a cog. Push it away. Better.
But once you’ve figured this out, everything about the C4 is so intuitive you can just get on with driving. Brake in a straight line, one cog down on the gearbox, turn in, apply the power, feel the back end step out slightly, immediately correct. I emerged after two laps thinking that no driving experience could ever better this.
But a career in world rallying doesn’t beckon. Why? A masterclass from Loeb as he jumps in the driver’s seat and shows me the real potential of the Citroen.
The comfort level isn’t quite the same. My neck aches after a while and the belts are having to work hard to keep me held in place. Sebastien is flat out, and tells me later on that he was close to ultimate pace, yet he glances across to make sure I’m OK, tightens his own belts.
The high-speed stuff is what amazes when Loeb is driving. There’s one particular corner where the car goes light over a crest and there’s an adverse camber, but you never feel like the Citroen will break away. Loeb’s faith that the C4 will stick when he launches it into that section is awe-inspiring. There’s no hesitation and his input movements on the steering wheel are calm.
He’s not fighting the car. Malcolm Wilson, boss of the Ford team, told me a while ago that Loeb is the smoothest driver in the championship. “If you throw around a modern WRC car, you’ll be slower. It’s why McRae wasn’t as fast towards the end of his career, because the cars didn’t suit his style.” Sebastien is sideways, butnot drifting sideways. Enough to get around the corner quickly, but not so much that it’s too spectacular. It looks brutish from the outside, but inside is tranquil.
Loeb’s feet dance on the pedals in places and are harsh elsewhere. His left-foot braking is so hard I’m thrown against the belts, his hands whirl the wheel, but they’re not hurried. He’s not throwing himself around in the seat and his body is remarkably static considering how fast we’re going.
Remarkably, there’s a strong impression of delicacy and sensitivity to Loeb’s driving. Not in a metrosexual way - he is French, after all… but he’s gentle with the C4. The way he controls the clutch at pullaway is verging on tender. Tiny adjustments. When he pulls the handbrake to induce a slide, he only tweaks it.
To be able to witness Sebastien Loeb, the world’s greatest rally driver, in his office doing what he does best, can never be topped. You can’t sit next to an F1 driver in an F1 car. Afterwards, Loeb shakes me by the hand. “Thank you not crashing my car. What did you think of it?” I swoon slightly and try to sound knowledgeable. Sebastien Loeb has just asked for my opinion. Now I can retire from WRC happy.
Words: Piers Ward
Photography: Stephen Perry/ Citroen Racing
This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of Top Gear magazine