"Even before I came here, I had memorised the sequence of curves," says Loeb. "I studied on-board videos at home, then I came here with my codriver, Daniel Elena. We drove the route and put together a pacenotes book, just as I would in a normal rally special stage.
"In the WRC we only get to inspect the course twice: the first time you put together the notes and the second time you're checking them. Here, the third run onwards was all new for me. I was able to tell Daniel100m before the next curve what was coming, and he checked it. I would say"120 left" and he would correct me, like"120 left plus". We drove it together nine times, and the last three times I didn't make a single mistake."
Perfection is what's required here and Loeb wouldn't have it any other way. "I approached Pikes Peak like I do all of my projects: professionally, with a good team and to the very highest standards. I know there is no room for even the smallest error. But I have no interest in just coming here and driving with the pack. I want the record."
There are parts of the course where the road drops 500m into nothingness, with no guide rail. At many of these curves, such as the forebodingly named Devil's Playground at 4,000m, the cars in the fastest class reach speeds of well over 200kph.
"With a car as powerful as the Peugeot, if you steer just a fraction wide, you're history," says Loeb. "You have to be precise. It was actually easier before on gravel; you can work much more with the car."
Meanwhile, clouds roll in and the weather service forecasts a 30 per cent chance of rain.
The following day, as early as 3am, a good two-and-a-half hours before sunrise, a1km-long colonnade is working its way up the mountain, past the herd of campervans, which were already in place the day before. Admittedly, the ban on open fires makes hearty weekend fun difficult. Colorado is suffering from severe forest fires and hoping for rain.
Up at the summit, it's bitterly cold. Along the road, yesterday's melt water from late season snow is still frozen. First up are the motorbikes, the riders exposing themselves to the dangers of the mountain without roll cages or any of the protection afforded to their four-wheeled rivals. Supermotos and vintage racing bikes follow, all conquering the mountain to a great show of reverence from the fans.
A few dauntless individuals serve to remind us that sidecars still exist, with hearts bigger than anything humanoid. Johnny Wood almost dislodges his passenger, Giorgina Gottlieb, in the penultimate curve; at the finish line she clings to him, sobbing. In the heat of the battle, Bruno Marlin's passenger, his son Jeremy, leans so far out that the young Frenchman scrapes his helmet visor on the asphalt. American Wade Boyd wins ahead of Japan's Masahito Watanabe. Rivals on the track, they all embrace once they get to the summit. They're not racing against each other, but against the mountain and the clock.
That goes double for Sebastien Loeb, the first starter among the cars. If all goes to plan, he will win, that much is certain. What's interesting is the time he does it in.
Long before you see him, you hear him. Every change of gear is an explosion amplified by the Rocky Mountain cliffs: a staccato of explosions coming nearer and nearer. Between Devil's Playground and the summit, the road keeps disappearing and the eyes strain to focus. The silhouette of the Peugeot 208 T16 Pikes Peak should be appearing down there, but it's already ahead, at a crag further on.
The ear has tricked the eye. Later the telemetry will show a peak speed of more than 240kph, the wild beast with the huge spoiler zooms, roaring, from one corner to the next, disappears, reappears, tears past at easily 170kph on a double 60-degreecurve, at the end of which yawns a 300mabyss. At the exit, the inside front wheel is exactly on the white line marking the edge of the asphalt. It is an exact, clinical procedure: one of those moments which very few men on this planet can pull off in a car.
The clock at the finish line shows an unbelievable 8:13.878, one-and-a-half minutes under the existing record. Membership of the 9 Minute Club is a bit less special today. In second place is last year's victor Rhys Millen, with a respectable9:02, which might be an eternity better than his old record, but is still in a completely different league.
At 4,300m above sea level, Loeb seems happy and relieved: "I felt good in the car and I decided on all-out attack," he says. "Pikes Peak was my season highlight, and this record means a lot to me." He will drive his last WRC event in his native France this autumn, and in 2014 he'll enter the touring car world championship(WTCC) in a Citroen, which will manage a mere third of the performance of the Pikes Peak Peugeot. The nine-time rally world champion has enjoyed his mad week in this unbelievably powerful, radical car, built just for him.
In the meantime, the mountain has reminded everyone why they call this event the Race to the Clouds. It draws together a mighty contingent in white and grey and gives it a vigorous shake: rain, hail, snow, fog, wind - it takes the whole afternoon to get the last 24 cars up the hill. There's no hope of a record or even a respectable time now, and how could there be: now it's the turn of the soapbox cars, the home-built, rebuilt, the jerrybuilt, the family teams; the products of long winter nights' tinkering. The spectators greet every last one of them with great respect and genuine enthusiasm, and rightly so.
Sebastien Loeb is still up there on the summit, in the middle of a sleet shower and pea-soup fog. Everyone drives down together, whether hobby warrior or record holder. Everyone is equal before the mountain.
In the Best Western Hotel in Manitou Springs, where Eric, Mary and Mary-Jo are recovering from their previous day's exertions, there's a dozy calm. Mary-Jo snores lightly on the veranda, Mary browses the latest edition of the National Enquirer. With earphones in his iPad, Eric is watching the race online. Bit of a hotshot, this Loeb. Next year, Eric decides, he'll send the two girls up to the summit on the cog railway. He'll master the route to the top alone and won't slow for any curve. How hard can it be?
Source: Red Bulletin