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Top Gear vs Sebastien Loeb: go-kart challenge

We speak to nine-time WRC champ and test his mettle out on track

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You’re on a tennis court, and gazing back across the net is Roger Federer. You and your Sunday-knockabout football team-mates walk onto the field, and at the other end there’s Manchester United. Just doesn’t happen does it?

Yet here I am lining up on a grid in the same motor race as Sebastien Loeb.

Here’s a man who hasn’t only won nine World Rally Championships on the trot, but also taken the flag in several rounds of World Touring Car rounds and World Rallycross, come second overall at Le Mans, and won stages of Dakar-series adventure rallies too. Oh and he holds, by miles, the Pike’s Peak record. Now admittedly today we’re only in karts, but I’m still expecting to be lapped multiple times.

It’s a bit of a surreal race. Peugeot has brought along three of its Dakar rallyists: Loeb, plus Dakar legends Stephane Peterhansel and Cyril Despres. Lined up against them are a sundry bunch of muppets like me. To make it more fun, the champs start from the back of the grid, so there’ll be some overtaking.

No-one’s more surprised than me when after qualifying I find myself quickest among the muppets. I’m on pole and next to me on the front row lies a man who cares enough to have his name embroidered on his racing boots (I’m in suede Timberlands, should you care).

Loeb is quickest of the champs. But he’s only 1.8 seconds faster than me in qualifying. I’m deflated in all honesty. I wanted him to be twice as fast, not three per cent. Clearly there’s only so much you can do with a 21bhp kart. If we were in WRC cars he’d no doubt open up a chasm. Three percent just sounds so measly. Not the headline I was hoping for when I imagined this story beforehand.

Of course it’s an unbridgeable gap. In the race he fights through the entire field of muppets. I don’t even see him pass me.

(I was worried about other matters. On lap two I’m bumped out of the lead by an over-enthusiastic muppet outbraking himself. Then a couple of laps later I spin trying to make up lost places.)

What have we learned? That – even if by a small margin – silly little karts can now be added to the list of machinery in which Loeb is dominant.

So how transferable is the skill of winning across all these motorsport disciplines? I’ve always figured rally drivers are the most adaptable because they have to deal with everything from ice, through gravel to dry tarmac. But he says no.

“Every discipline is very different, and needs special experience. The goal of the driving isn’t the same.

“I started my career in rallying. That’s natural driving, you drive by feel. You can’t analyse every corner. You take notes but you can’t be 100 percent on the limit. You have to stay a little bit on the safe side because you don’t know what will happen on the next corner. ” Not on the limit eh Seb? Root around on YouTube and that’s not how it looks. But still.

“When you go from rally to rallycross, yes you’re able to drive the car. But the difference is you need to drive repeatedly and get right to the limit lap after lap. You have to be on the perfect line. It looks crazy from the outside but look at the onboard and we’re very smooth. It’s difficult to do that without mistakes.” Plus in rally you’re going through the stage with no other cars around, just you against the clock. Not so in rallycross: “Maybe it’s hard for you to fight with the other guys.”

But he’s also done superbly on track. Again though he insists it’s a different skill. “In track racing, like rallycross, you need to be on the tenths, driving repeatedly with precision. Whereas in rallying where you really have to have the feeling of what you’re doing. In racing it’s easy for a gentleman driver to get to a certain level. You can be quite fast because you can repeat, repeat, lap by lap and work on the details.”

Ah, that’ll be the gentleman-muppet Horrell in his kart then. It was analytic not sensory. I just kept braking later and later, fraction by fraction, til I started missing the apex, then I’d back off. I started in the 1’09”s and gradually chipped it down to 1’02” after a dozen laps. Loeb was in the 1”02s from the get-go.

“But the top drivers in F1 or any track discipline have this special feeling too. They go right on the limit. That was difficult for me in Touring Cars. I couldn’t beat Lopez in the championship because he could be nearly over the limit but just on it. That’s something I just wasn’t used to.” Even though you had won countless tarmac rallies? “I had to work hard in racing – it was maybe the most complicated thing I’ve done.”

And then the cross-country Dakar series? “In cross-country rallies you don’t even try to find the limit. You try to be reasonable. Not to destroy the car, not to be in the tricky places.”

So to his ridiculously fast Pikes Peak ascent. What was happening there? Would he have liked to have done it in the old days when it was gravel? “It would have been nice, more natural, more normal for me. But on tarmac with this kind of car, big tyres, lots of downforce, the sensation was just incredible. A touring car just doesn’t compare with that: it had 850 horsepower, four-wheel-drive, a lot of downforce.”

Well, I venture, you managed to adapt pretty quickly to all that. To try and get him to articulate some more, I say I always find downforce really tricky. But it’s just not Loeb’s thing trying to explain all this. He just grins and shoots back: “That’s why you and I don’t have the same job.”

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