The news that World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb is heading into semi-retirement at the end of 2012 offers two contrasting emotions: relief that an iron grip on the WRC will at last be loosened but also sadness that the sport's most successful driver - 74 rally wins, eight consecutive world titles and counting - will only pull on his overalls for a limited season in 2013.
Loeb reminds me of two other dominant forces in motor racing that have inspired admiration and disdain in equal measure: Michael Schumacher and Audi. Schuey is well known for his complete control of Formula 1 in the early 2000's while Audi's reign over sportscar racing (11 Le Mans victories since the turn of the century) has been just as impressive although you can't ignore the huge financial resources behind the team that must make some austerity-riven Eurozone countries green with envy.
All three have generated some resentment - usually accusations that they turned their sports boring - as they scooped up wins, title and world records but their achievements cannot be ignored nor underestimated. Loeb's command over his rivals is unprecedented; no one person has previously been able to exert such control over the sport. If you think of some of the big names from the 33 years of the WRC - Hannu Mikkola, Juha Kankkunen, Carlos Sainz, Tommi Makinen and Colin McRae to name just a few - Loeb's achievements are remarkable.
Sure the WRC has changed dramatically from the time of five-day rallies that tested the endurance capacities of both driver and car to the three-day 'sprints' of today, but the essence of the sport is still there. Maximum concentration, skill and sheer balls are still needed when you're flying over a yump in Finland with trees just inches away or tackling the gravel roads of Wales in the middle of November and as Loeb has unfortunately shown on the odd occasion he's crashed, mistakes can produce terrifying results.
But this is the man who still won the 2006 title in spite of missing the final four rallies after breaking his arm in a mountain bike accident - not even the great Marcus Gronholm could get past him. That raises more questions about his rivals than whether or not his domination was making everyone yawn.
A letter writer to Motorsport News a couple of weeks ago quoted the 1995 WRC champion, Colin McRae, who said of Loeb's titles: "Aye, quality, not quantity". McRae, an inspiration and a hero to many, was a fiercely competitive driver but I like to think he had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek on this one.
Loeb has done what has been asked of him, he's beaten the competition he's been faced with and he's stuck his neck out to get results - and not just results. Like McRae, Loeb is a competitor who will go for broke to claim the victory rather than playing any percentage games; he loves to win. If others haven't coped with that, then they need to look at themselves.
Of course, Loeb's reduced WRC programme will mean he can concentrate on other interests, including his nascent Le Mans team and possibly trying his hand in the World Touring Car Championship, but will he still be fully committed when he gets back into his Citroen DS3 next year? Perhaps, he's secretly setting himself another challenge - to win his 10th world title after giving his rivals a head start.
And with his talent, you wouldn't bet against him.Suggest a correction