There's no doubt that Peugeot starts as the firm favorite to shatter the benchmark of 9m46s established by Rhys Millen last year and take the company's first win in Colorado since 1989, when Robby Unser – who will be one of Peugeot's special guests on Sunday – triumphed with the 405 T16. Many people are talking of a time under nine minutes. But while Loeb's test runs have certainly been looking mighty impressive (“there's one class for Loeb and another for everyone else” is how multiple winner Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima puts it) the man himself is not taking anything for granted.
“Honestly, anything could happen,” Loeb says. “It's my first time here and we are up against people with a lot of experience. You just get one run up the hill and you can make a mistake or have some bad weather: there are many things that can go wrong and even more fast cars against us.”
There's current record-holder Rhys Millen in a brand-new car, of course, and the Norma prototype that was consistently second to Loeb in qualifying. Not to mention the 900-horsepower Mini Countryman of Loeb's experienced compatriot Jean-Philippe Dayraut.
“Jean-Philippe actually lent me his in-car videos from last year for me to watch and understand the route a bit better,” adds Loeb. “It was very helpful and also I could see from that just how quick he is! There are many people here who know the route really well. I've been looking at Rhys Millen's car as it was being prepared in a pit garage close to us at Pikes Peak raceway and there's no doubt that he will be fast, too, as well as Romain.”
Loeb of course enlisted the help of his loyal lieutenant, co-driver Daniel Elena (also a nine-time champion) to help him prepare. “I'm used to recognizing a road through pace notes, so I thought that the best way to help me prepare for this mentally was to treat it a bit like a rally stage,” explains Loeb. “Myself and Daniel did about 10 runs through the route with a road car when I first came to America, writing pace notes like we would on a rally recce. Only now it was very different, as I then read the pace notes back to Daniel as I remembered them, and he told me if I was right or not. So that's really how I learned the course. Now I know the road well, but at first my method of learning was like hearing pace notes in my head as I approached each corner. Only it was my voice calling them and not Daniel's!”
Nonetheless, Loeb says you can't compare anything within the Pikes Peak course to a rally, with the possible exception of the middle part, just before Glen Cove. “There, it's a little bit like the Catalunya Rally in Spain, which is the fastest asphalt round of the WRC,” he points out. “But really the road is much wider: another reason why to me this feels much more like a racing circuit, although the scenery is definitely rally. What surprised me was how varied the course is: you go from this really fast wooded part at the bottom to a totally remote landscape at the top where you see just mountain and sky. Then the last part is as bumpy as hell: it's been resurfaced in places recently, but that doesn't seem to have made it any better.”
Loeb would have enjoyed the challenge of competing at Pikes Peak on gravel as well, although he recognizes that it wouldn't really have been possible to do it with the 208 as it currently stands.
“I think gravel would have been a lot of fun, but it wouldn't really have been suitable for this car, which is so focused and aggressive,” he says. “I've driven a lot of cars in my career – including Formula 1 cars – and I don't ever remember a car that surprises you so much. Even with a Formula 1 car, after three laps you pretty much know how it is and there are no surprises anymore. This car just gets your attention all the time. Obviously you have to respect it, but the sensations are amazing.”
And that's why Loeb has taken Pikes Peak to his heart, although this is actually only the second time in his life that he's traveled to the United States. The first time was to take part in the Los Angeles X Games last year – which he won.
“Pikes Peak is a different style of racing; a different style of competition but that's what I am looking for now,” says Loeb, who made the decision last year to turn his back on the WRC after more than a decade of dominance. “I still love rallying and I always will but it was time to move on. I've got everything I wanted to out of the sport and it was time for new challenges. I figured if I wanted to do something different now was the time to do it: there was no point in waiting until I'm 50. I've had a lot of fun this year and now of course we have touring cars to look forward to next year, so I've got absolutely no regrets about my decision.”
Having said that, Loeb has been busier this year than he ever was during his rally career. When he goes back to his residence in Switzerland after Pikes Peak, he will be able to enjoy his first weekend at home in eight weeks. This year he's contesting a full FIA GT campaign with his own team, Sebastien Loeb Racing, and taking part in five rallies, as well as Pikes Peak and testing the new Citroen Touring Car. He also somehow found time to squeeze in two Porsche Supercup rounds in Spain and Monaco and a small rally in Switzerland with his wife Severine as co-driver.
Quickest by a comfortable margin in qualifying on Wednesday, Loeb now faces one of his biggest challenges yet in living up to expectations during Sunday's race.
“I don't feel any special pressure; I'll just try to do my best,” he says, cool to the last. “In the end, qualifying isn't of massive importance here. It all comes down to your performance on the day.”