Loeb beats Vettel to win fourth Race of Champions

07th February 2022
Damien Smith

What a start to 2022 for Sébastien Loeb. At 47, the nine-time World Rally Champion finished second on the Dakar Rally, sensationally won an eighth Monte Carlo Rally – and has now equalled Didier Auriol’s record by becoming a four-time winner of the popular Race of Champions head-to-head knock-out competition. He’s on fire right now.


The French legend beat four-time Formula 1 world champion Sebastian Vettel in an enthralling final, at the first RoC run since 2019. The event enjoyed a refreshing makeover this time, switching from its stadium-based format to a larger layout shovelled out of snow and ice on the frozen Baltic sea in Sweden’s Pite Havsbad. The cars used were the FIA RX2e electric rallycross car, Porsche’s 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport, a 100 per cent fossil-free biofuel powered SuperCar Lites rallycrosser and the off-road Polaris RZR PRO XP buggy.

The new venue and tricky surface proved a huge hit with the star-studded line-up of racing legends, who congregated from the worlds of F1, NASCAR, IndyCar, rallying and rallycross. Some clearly had an edge in such conditions – but credit to the black-top racers: they still managed to spring a surprise or too and take the fight to the rallycrosser and rally aces, with Vettel showing great verve to take Loeb all the way to four heats in an entertaining final. And they call Kimi Räikkönen the Iceman…


No quarter given on route to final

Following sunny conditions on Saturday for the Nations Cup, the main Race of Champions individual event ran in near-blizzard conditions on the Sunday. Vettel’s route to the final took him up against US IndyCar ace Colton Herta, who put in a fantastic performance over the two days on a surface best described as far outside his usual comfort zone. The pair won a heat each, with Vettel progressing by just 0.354 seconds across the two races.

Herta’s fellow American Jimmie Johnson also showed an impressive turn of pace in the snow and ice, taking the second heat off Tom Kristensen in their quarter-final. But the seven-time NASCAR champion missed out on the semis by 0.606s.

Loeb and Oliver Solberg recorded a thrilling dead heat in their second heat, the Monte winner going through having won the opening race. Meanwhile, two-time DTM champion Mattias Ekstrom beat four-time World Rallycross champion Johan Kristoffersson in their quarter.


Trouble for Kristensen as Vettel progresses

The semi-finals pitted Vettel against Kristensen, the F1 man gaining what amounted to a free pass into the final when the nine-time Le Mans winner stopped out on the course with a frustrating fault on his electric-powered RX2e rallycrosser. Vettel easily won the second heat in the Polaris racers to seal his place in the final.

But the second semi went all the way to three heats, with Loeb defeating Ekstrom in the Porsches, the Swede making it 1-1 in the Supercar Lites and the WRC king claiming the decider in the RX2e cars, to set up a star-studded final.

Battle of the world champions

They share 13 world championships between them and, heading into the final, four Champion of Champions titles. Now Vettel and Loeb faced off in the four-heat climax of a great weekend of ice racing. Loeb took a closely fought 1-0 lead in the Polaris racers, but Vettel gave his all to hit back in heat two. After the first lap just 0.2s separated the pair in the Supercar Lites, but then Loeb stretched away to extend his overall advantage.

At 2-0, the rally legend needed just one more win in the third heat to claim his fourth RoC title, and when Vettel side-swiped a snow bank and ran up on two wheels it looked in the bag for the Frenchman – only for him to make a rare mistake and spin. There was a wry smile on Loeb’s face as trailed home far behind Vettel at the finish.

So 2-1 it was, which allowed Vettel a shot at equalling the score in the Polaris racers. He was ahead at the half-way mark by 0.7s, but could do nothing to stop the magnificent Loeb who shot off the crossover bridge to win a tight heat and seal a 3-1 victory, Séb joining Auriol – who also competed last weekend – as the event’s most successful driver.

“You were too fast!” said a laughing Vettel as he greeted the winner. “For sure, it completes a good start to my season,” said Loeb is his usual understated manner. “Second on the Dakar Rally, a win on the Monte Carlo and victory here at the Race of Champions! I’m really happy. I had a good feeling this weekend that I could find my rhythm. A nice show in the third round of the final when I completely lost control of the car, and it’s great to equal Didier’s record.”

“The conditions were tricky and getting more and more slippery,” said Vettel who seemed to be in his element on the ice. “At the end I thought I had a good run, but he deserved to win. In these conditions I have a bit of catching up to do, but it was great to be out here and I really enjoyed it.

“I don’t know how the people stand the conditions out in the cold,” he added, acknowledging the hardy, enthusiastic crowd that came out to cheer on racing’s heroes. “But I hope we come back to Sweden again.”


Solbergs keep it in the family

The two-driver Nations Cup kicked off the weekend action on Saturday, as father-and-son duo Petter and Oliver Solberg clinched victory for Team Norway against surprise finalists Johnson and Herta, competing for Team USA.

The American heroes defeated the Team Finland duo, double Formula 1 world champion Mika Häkkinen and W Series racer Emma Kimilainen – the latter a last-minute replacement for no-show Alfa Romeo F1 racer Valtteri Bottas – by three heats to one in their semi-final. It had hardly been a shock to see the Solbergs make it to the climax of the competition. But the opposite was certainly true for their opposition, given how far from home the Californians found themselves – in every sense. But when it came to it, Johnson and Herta were powerless to stop the Solbergs claiming the cup, losing out by a 3-1 scoreline.

Team USA was on the backfoot from the start of the final when Johnson stopped with a mechanical problem on his Polaris in the first heat. WRC rising star Oliver Solberg then made it 2-0 when he beat Herta in the second round, at the wheel of the Porsche. Johnson at least got a point on the board with a win in the third heat, before Petter struck the decisive blow against Herta in the fourth heat.

“It’s unbelievable,” said an ebullient Petter, 47. “I got my motivation when I saw Sébastien Loeb winning the Monte Carlo Rally last month and I thought: ‘it can’t be so difficult.’ So I was so ready for this race – and to do it together with Oliver is a big dream.

“The Race Of Champions has been so special for many years. It’s so much fun to be with all these guys: everyone has had so much success in their careers yet they are so friendly. Oliver has been flying around like a yoyo all week because he’s been so excited. When you are 20, that’s how it is.”


Big smiles as stars come out to play

The competitive edge is never far from the surface with top sportsmen and women, but the sense of camaraderie and fun is all part of what makes the Race of Champions so popular. Even those who didn’t get very far on either day, including a super-relaxed Hélio Castroneves who stretched out on a sofa to watch, hung around to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy a glass or three of something refreshing.

Vettel, a former RoC champion and seven-time Nations Cup king, helped break in event debutant Mick Schumacher, which was fitting given the fun he had in the past with the Haas driver’s father Michael. Representing Team Germany, they drew 2-2 against Team USA in the quarter-finals but went out on time difference, which is also how Finland knocked out Team GB duo David Coulthard and another RoC debutant, Jamie Chadwick. DC and the W Series double champion were both out early in the individual event too, the Scot losing to old McLaren team-mate Häkkinen – not for the first time, as DC was quick to point out!

In the early stages of the Nations Cup, the Germans defeated Team eROC made up by virtual racers Jarno Opmeer and Lucas Blakeley. But the latter achieved something he will never forget when he beat Vettel in one of the heats. As ever, Vettel took it all with a big smile, on a weekend that puts fun and good cheer back into motor racing.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Sebastian Vettel

  • Sebastien Loeb

  • Mick Schumacher

  • Colton Herta

  • David Coulthard

  • Jimmie Johnson

  • main-f1-1998-belgium-michael-schumacher-david-coulthard-rainer-schlegelmilch-mi-14032022.jpg

    Formula 1

    Six motorsport meltdowns

  • sebastian-vettel-will-leave-ferrari-at-the-end-of-2020-contract-goodwood-12052020.jpg

    Formula 1

    Sebastian Vettel will leave Ferrari at the end of 2020

  • f1-2019-abu-dhabi-charles-leclerc-salary--andy-hone-motorsport-images-main-goodwood-13012020.jpg

    Formula 1

    David Coulthard: “Leclerc has probably had one of the biggest pay rises of anyone in motorsport”