Loeb is getting to grips with an Irish test
In any other year, in mid-January, Sebastien Loeb would expect to be skating across the icy Alpine roads of southern France, beginning the build-up to the Monte Carlo Rally.
Instead he has been in Monaghan. On a bright Irish winter morning, surrounded by soggy green fields and a small army of marshals, the most successful driver the world of rallying has ever seen has been applying himself to the task of fine-tuning his scarlet and blue Citroen C4 to suit Ireland's greasy, bumpy back roads.
Monte Carlo or Monaghan, it makes little difference to the 34-year-old Frenchman. He has a job to do, whether it is in the Alps of the lowlands of Ireland.
For sure, he would prefer that his first event of the 2009 season was based in Monaco and not Sligo but motorsport's powers-that-be have decreed that the iconic Monte Carlo Rally, which he has won four times in the last five years, would be left out of the World championship under their new 'rotational' system and replaced by Rally Ireland.
Hence the presence in deepest Monaghan of the mighty Citroen Sport team and their record-breaking World champion.
But what a surreal scene! A rural Irish farmyard, populated mainly by a herd of Friesian cows, had been taken over by the paraphernalia of the top rally team in the world. Service truck, tyre truck, motorhome, medical car and canteen are all squeezed in alongside the tractors and straw bales. One of the barns, freshly brushed and scrubbed, houses his workhorse C4, Loeb’s Rally GB-winning car. In their nearby stalls, the cows barely look up from their fodder as it growls its way in an out between sprints over the twisty five-kilometre road that has been closed off for Loeb to carry out his business.
This may just be testing but he is quick, incredibly quick, as he powers the Citroen down this narrow, bumpy, slippery road, the car airborne over the jumps. A spin and a brush with a bank say he is pushing hard, trying to find the adhesion limits of tyres and suspension.
But he is totally unperturbed. "It is a tricky road," he laughs.
Indeed, Loeb is in a mood he doesn't always reflect in the heat of a World championship rally - relaxed, chatty, enjoying himself.
But wouldn't he rather be preparing for Monte Carlo?
"Yes, for sure, but it is not so cold here!" he smiles. "But Monte Carlo is a big rally for France and it should always be in the World championship. I'm disappointed, of course, but we have no say in this so we come to Ireland instead. OK, I like Ireland, too, but I will go to Monte Carlo as a spectator and be frustrated."
Even though it is just the first morning of a four-day test session - team-mate Dani Sordo was scheduled to take over later in the week - Loeb is already happy with the set-up, much of it gleaned from his experiences in Ireland in 2007.
The main difference this time is in the tyres, Pirelli instead of Michelin, but he says: "The car is
good. We just had to find a balance to suit the tyres but that is not so hard when you just have the control tyre that is supplied."
But still the muddy car repeatedly returned to its stall in the barn and the team of red-suited engineers, techicians and mechanics descended on it - checking, adjusting, changing - before Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena pulled on their helmets again and edged the C4 out of the farmyard for several more blistering trips down the narrow ribbon of road.
Is it not all so mundane for him, boring even? He shrugs: "No, I enjoy driving. It is what I do - and it is important to be ready for the rally."
But with five World title, 47 victories and almost every other rally record you can think of, how does he stay motivated?
"47? In that right? I don't remember. But I don't like to lose, that is motivation enough."
Marie Pierre Rossi, Citroen Sport's PR guardian, interjects: "No, you HATE to lose."
Loeb nods and smiles: "Yes, I hate to lose."
He thinks Chris Atkinson's move to the Citroen junior team following the demise of Subaru will be interesting.
"Subaru have not been so good recently and it is sad that Petter (Solberg) won't be here but now Chris has the same car as me it will be interesting to see how quick he can be."
And Sebastien Ogier (the junior World champion)? "Yes, for sure, he will be fast but this is a learning period for him and Rally Ireland is very difficult. He has to be patient."
And, after another cup of expresso, he wandered off to amuse himself while the mechanics worked. The farm dog found a new friend to throw his ball and even the Friesians took time out from eating to eye up the slight figure in the red racing suit leaning on the barn bars,
After all, it isn't every day they get to share their farmyard with a legend like Loeb.