Record-breaking multiple World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb has reflected that his inexperience in single-seaters would be a 'handicap' were he to make his F1 debut for Scuderia Toro Rosso in the 2009 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix finale, as has been widely speculated.
Loeb got behind the wheel of a DPR-run GP2 Series car last week at Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain on the final day of the post-season group test. Though he lapped slowest of the 25 drivers present in changeable weather conditions, the Frenchman was less than a tenth of a second adrift of the next-slowest driver on the timesheets, and wound up only just over two seconds shy of the absolute pace at the close of proceedings.
“Overall, it went well,” the 35-year-old told his official website. “I am a little frustrated, because the day was quite changeable with of a series of red flags due to off-road excursions – the weather did not help me. The morning was wet – hence mastering the car was not easy – and from midday it was dry. I thought we could then sort out the set-up, but repeated stoppages meant that we spent virtually more time in the pits than on the track.
“In the afternoon, I managed to complete three sets of five laps and then we did two laps, red flag, one lap, red flag, two more laps, red flag – and like that until the end of the test. In these conditions it was difficult to improve lap times. Adapting to the car and not knowing the circuit [were the most difficult aspects to the test]. Succeeding in one day was not easy.”
Nonetheless, for only his fourth outing behind the wheel of a single-seater – following a 'swap' with Renault's Heikki Kovalainen at Paul Ricard in late 2007 and tests for Red Bull Racing at Silverstone and subsequently Barcelona last year, impressing the energy drinks-backed concern with his performance and feedback as he lapped eighth-quickest in Spain – it was a none-too shabby showing.
Whilst admitting that the GP2 machine is not a million miles away from F1, however, the 52-time rally-winning legend did opine that his paucity of experience without a roof over his head is potentially a strong argument against making his grand prix bow for STR in Abu Dhabi, should the offer be made to him.
“[My feelings driving the car] grew strongly,” he underlined. “It is true that it really resembles Formula 1. You have to quickly find your bearings, because they are cars that are literally glued to the ground. When you're aboard one of these cars, you feel there is a lot of work necessary to get to the required level. The F1 is still quite a bit above [GP2], but this is a long way towards it, especially in terms of the grip and high-speed cornering.
“Today, I cannot say [whether he is ready to race in F1]. I know that I lack driving with this type of car. The inexperience is a handicap. Just now I don't know how good I would be if a possible opportunity to participate in a grand prix presented itself.”
Loeb has committed his immediate future to the World Rally Championship in 2010, whilst his most pressing goal is that of defeating Ford rival Mikko Hirvonen on Wales Rally GB later this month to lift an unprecedented sixth straight drivers' crown. His Citroën Total World Rally Team have confirmed that should the Alsacien be invited to compete in Abu Dhabi, given that it falls outside of the annual WRC calendar they would not stand in his way.