Five-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb made an impressive jump to Formula One driving on Monday after taking part in the first winter testing session since the close of a dramatic season.
Loeb, who clinched a record fifth straight rally driving title earlier this month, finished with the eighth fastest time for Red Bull.
The Frenchman had a fastest time of 1 minute, 22.503 seconds to finish just under two seconds behind pace setter Takuma Sato, who was testing for sister team Toro Rosso.
“I enjoyed it very much. It is never a holiday when you are driving a Formula One car,” Loeb said from the Circuit de Catalunya. “When you are a driver you dream about driving Formula One and if you get this opportunity, you take it ... I would not say no if I had another opportunity.”
Loeb said it took time to acclimatize to the G-force felt in turns, the difference in suspensions and the tires as 17 F1 cars tested slicks in line with regulation changes for next year.
Loeb, rallying’s most successful ever driver, said that at 34 a switch to F1 was “maybe too late.” But he sounded like your typical race car driver afterward, however.
“I can go faster,” he said, although he won’t continue testing through today. “I know a few places where I lost some time and I know I can do better.”
“At the end I was really feeling good in the car, there were no big risks, I didn’t make any mistakes, there were no big moments, I just need to improve,” he said.
Loeb still has a race in Wales next month to close out the rally season. But the motivation remained the same regardless of the type of car he was steering.
“I like the fight and I like what I am doing, so when I start the stage I just want to be the fastest, so that’s it, that’s my motivation,” the Citroen driver said. “I don’t drive only for the title and for the victories, it’s a question of pleasure.”
It was the first return to the track since the season-ending Brazilian GP earlier this month, when 23-year-old Lewis Hamilton became the youngest ever champion after an overtaking maneuver at the last corner. The McLaren driver finished one point better ahead of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, who won his home race.
Neither driver was at the track on the outskirts of Barcelona, with Renault’s Nelson Piquet Jr, BMW Sauber’s Robert Kubica and Force India’s Adrian Sutil the only F1 drivers present.
Loeb was faster than Piquet Jr, but teams were trying out different configurations making it harder to judge the true speed of the drivers and cars.
He also finished ahead of Ferrari test driver Marc Gene and nearly two seconds ahead of Bruno Senna, the nephew of former three-time F1 champion Ayrton Senna, who was testing for Honda.
It was the first time a Senna was behind the wheel of a Formula One car since Ayrton died in a crash at Imola over 14 years ago.
“Considering it was the first time I drove the car, I think it was pretty decent,” said Senna, who timed a fastest lap of 1:24.343 from 39 laps.
“The car was such a big step up from GP 2. Everything is just a notch up. You cannot expect a driver who is new to Formula One to come in and produce a lap time that’s magical, so the team wanted me to get comfortable with the car,” he said.
Senna finished second to GP2 champion Giorgio Pantano this past season. The iSport driver is expected by many to make the jump to F1 by next year or 2010.