Silent Savior - 2007 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP
The history of the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans is long and varied, but it carries one relative constant: to win at Le Mans, you have to be anything but French. Despite its location near the heart of the proud country, the victorious teams had largely been foreign. France saw early success by winning the first Le Mans with a Chenard & Walcker in 1923, followed by Lorraine-Dietrich (1925, 1926) Bugatti (1937, 1939), and Delahaye (1938).
Following the Second World War, though there was a long drought as Ferrari, Ford and Porsche rose to the challenge and dominated the event. This foreign invasion seemed to be permanent, until Matra claimed the crown three times (1972, 1973, 1974), Renault secured a victory in 1977 and local heroes Rondeau scored an emotional win in 1980.
With the advent of Group C came the nigh-on invincible Porsche 956/962C siblings, and a lack of factory involvement saw the French fade away once more. New rules for the 1990’s killed the Porsche’s and gave French motoring giant Peugeot a chance to join the fight. Their 3.5L 905 proved fragile at first, but eventually won Le Mans in 1992.
Even after the collapse of the wildly popular World Sportscar Championship in 1993, Peugeot Talbot Sport kept on going to claim a second win that year. The absence of a major series had by now become a deal-breaker however, and Peugeot set its sights on re-using the 905’s engine in Formula One with Mclaren. The engine program got off to a very shaky start however, including one of the quickest blowups in the history of Formula One.
Peugeot never really recovered from the initial blow, and their engines became known as powerful but annoyingly fragile. It took seven dreadful seasons for the brand to realize it was fighting an uphill battle. With zero wins to their tally, Peugeot left the pinnacle of motorsport in 2000 after supplying McLaren, Jordan and Prost. During their tenure in Formula One, Peugeot had also restarted its successful rallying program, but after a competitive time with the 206 WRC, the awkward 307 CC WRC turned out to be a huge disappointment.
In response to this, the company pulled out of the WRC and looked for a new challenge. They found it back at Le Mans. A mass exodus of manufacturers in 1999 had left German luxury brand Audi the unchallenged king of La Sarthe, as the R8 and its Bentley Speed 8 cousin conquered the new millennium with victories in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 (Bentley), 2004 and 2005.
The R8’s total domination aggravated private teams enormously, leading to the Automobile Club de l’Oest imposing massive weight penalties and severely decreases inlet restrictors. These measures crippled the R8, so the Germans decided to make a very bold move: they switched to diesel power. The new R10 used a gargantuan 5.5L twin turbo V12 diesel engine capable of earth-shattering performance and very decent fuel economy. Peugeot followed its development closely, and decided to react with an immediate counter-offensive.
Realizing the potential of the R10, Peugeot set out to effectively copy its basic engine layout. In accordance with the regulations, the new prototype would also receive a all-aluminium, 48-valve, twin turbo V12 complying with the maximum allowable 5.5L capacity. However, there was a typical French twist to the engine.
In the R10, Audi used a traditional Vee-angle of 60 degrees between the cylinder banks. For a V12, this was the ideal layout, giving smooth power delivery from evenly spaced firing intervals. Peugeot on the other hand, decided differently. Keeping in mind the weight penalty of a diesel engine over a petrol-fed unit, the company opted for a 100 degree angle, making the engine nearly flat.
This layout sacrificed some of the smoothness over the more conventional Audi-block, but it significantly lowered the car’s center of gravity and improved handling. A similar concept had been tried by Peugeot’s rivals Renault in Formula One, where they used a quirky 111 degree V10 from 2001 to 2003.
The unusual configuration did little to stifle the V12’s immense potential though, as it eventually belched out 730 horsepower and torque easily exceeding a mountainous 1200 nm (885 ft lbs) thanks to the latest common-rail direct injection technology, referred to as High-pressure Diesel injection in Peugeot nomenclature.
In addition to extracting masses of power, Peugeot also concentrated on the environmental impact of the engine. In the passenger car market, the firm had been a front-runner in the field of diesel particulate filters, or Filtres a Particules in good old-fashioned French. These big metal tubes worked roughly the same way as catalytic converters, preventing soot and other undesirables from reaching the air.
In a clear nod to their excellent reputation for diesel road cars, Peugeot named the new car 908 HDi FAP. The exotic-looking machine tried its best to outgun the Audi, featuring a six-speed sequential transmission (one more than the Audi), an 80 horsepower advantage while weighing the same 925 kg (2039 lbs) and a distinctive coupe bodyshape.
Closed top prototypes had fallen out of favor since the demise of Group C back in 1993, but the ACO had introduced new regulations encouraging their use in 2006 in an effort to lure in something to take on the Audi’s. With its sleek lines, the 908 had an unmistakable advantage on the long straights of Le Mans.
For its driver lineup, Peugeot spared no expense and took no chances. The French squad singed former F1-driver Pedro Lamy (POR), sportscar veteran Nicolas Minassian (FRA), former F1-driver Marc Gené (ESP), sportscar veteran and former F1-test driver Stéphane Sarrazin (FRA), triple CART champion Sébastien Bourdais (FRA) and 1997 F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve (CAN). The ironclad driving team made Peugeot confident it could go for the win.
After and encouraging pre-season test at Paul Ricard, the Peugeot’s made their raced debut at the first 1000 kilometer round of the Le Mans Series season held at the Temple of Speed itself: Monza. Main rival Audi was not present, as it was busy wreaking havoc in the American Le Mans Series.
Peugeot was therefore consigned to dealing with Judd V10-powered prototypes from Lola, Pescarolo and Dome, joined by AER twin turbo V8 machinery from Courage and a single year-old Lola. Predictably, the factory Peugeot’s crushed the privateer field, and placed first and second on the grid. The #7 of Minassian/Gené barely beat its sister #8 piloted by Lamy/Sarrazin with a pole time of 1:34.503. This was just .177 of a second faster than the second car, but a 1.685 seconds quicker than the third-placed Lola B07/17 Judd driven by Jan Charouz (CZ) and Stefan Mücke (GER).
Nicolas Minassian and Marc Gené sailed to an easy win, but Pedro Lamy and Stéphane Sarrazin encountered mechanical woes. As a result of this the car spent enough time in the pits to drop two laps behind, handing second place to the Pescarolo 01 of Jean-Christophe Boullion (FRA) and Emmanuel Collard (FRA), but still finishing third.
At Valencia the 908’s again locket out the front row, as Minassian/Gené proved the superior pairing for a second time. Their luck would turn however, as the Peugeot slowed with clutch failure in the early stages of the race, succumbing to its own volcano of torque. Pedro Lamy and Stéphane Sarrazin kept on humiliating the assortment of Lola’s, Dome’s Pescarolo’s and Zytek’s. Eventually the pair took the checkered flag with a devastating three lap advantage.
With two LMS wins in pocket, it was time for the main event: the 24 Hours of Le Mans. There, in the hallowed grounds of Circuit de La Sarthe, the 908 would finally meet its nemesis. At the preliminary Le Mans Test a week before the actual race, Peugeot drew first blood by setting the fastest time of the day.
Pedro Lamy, Stéphane Sarrazin and Sébastien Bourdais managed to beat the leading Audi of Frank Biela (GER), Emanuele Pirro (ITA) and Marc Werner (GER) by a massive 1.570 seconds. Nicolas Minassian, Jacques Villeneuve and Marc Gené were down in 5th, embarrassingly beaten by a Pescarolo 01 driven by Jean-Christophe Boullion (FRA), Emmanuel Collard (FRA), and Romain Dumas (FRA).
Peugeot being quicker than their main rival was great, but everyone involved knew Le Mans had never really been won on speed alone. Consistency, and most of all reliability would be essential to secure the proud marque’s third victory. Another concerted effort by #8 Lamy/Sarrazin/Bourdais saw Peugeot take pole at La Sarthe, with the sister #7 car splitting two Audi’s by taking third.
However, the Germans had brought three cars to Peugeot’s too, giving them a greater chance of at least finishing the race. With a tiny gap of three tenths between the pole-sitting Peugeot and the leading Audi, the first diesel-battle at Le Mans would be one decided by fuel efficiency, consistency, reliability and a very healthy dose of luck. Despite a decrease in fuel capacity from 90 to 81 liters to bring the diesels closer to petrol-powered cars (which retained the 90L tank), the factory smog cannons were clearly in a class of their own.
The day of the big race brought heavily overcast skies and a sizable chance of rain. The cars went underway under dry conditions though, and immediately Peugeot suffered a minor setback. In a race to the first corner with four cars piled together, Sébastian Bourdais missed his braking point and had to let the R10 TDI of Rinaldo “Dindo” Capello (ITA).
Just twenty laps in, everyone’s worst fear became a reality: it started to rain heavily. On slick tires, cars were spinning off left right and center, but amazingly all the top prototypes managed to stick to the black stuff. Except one. Audi’s Mike Rockenfeller cocked up his entry to Tetre Rouge, and parked his #3 R10 hard into the barriers tail-first. With the rear suspension and gearbox in tatters, the German was forced to take an early retirement just two hours into the race.
As the evening set in, Audi took a dominant lead from the French challengers. After only 13 hours, the two Teutonic titans had fired off into the distance, leaving the closest Peugeot (#8) 7 laps down on the leader. Still diligently whispering through the darkness, the 908’s were desperate to see the Audi’s encounter some sort of problem.
Luckily for Peugeot, their prayers were heard. After a routine pitstop, the leading #2 Audi suddenly lost its left rear wheel at the incredibly high-speed Indianapolis corner. The car helplessly careened off into the barriers, but Dindo Capello was fortunately unharmed. Peugeot’s pit suddenly perked up with expectation, as there was now only one Audi left, although it still led the #8 Peugeot by 7 laps.
Monsoon rain started pouring down again just two hours before the finish, and conditions became so bad the team principals pleaded with the ACO to unleash a safety car. After a failed attempt, the governing body relented, and the race was neutralized until the track had stopped looking like a canal.
Shortly after the safety car, the third placed #7 Peugeot of Minassian, Villeneuve and Gené retired after having spent a long time in the pits earlier. A failed fuel injection system had ruined the engine, leaving the #8 to fend for itself. Unfortunately, the car didn’t have much fighting to do, as the safety car wasn’t called in until 20 minutes before the end.
The conditions hadn’t improved in the slightest, but the ACO couldn’t afford to see its race finish under a silly safety car. No positions changed in these last laps, and the lone Peugeot came in second behind the Audi of Frank Biela, Marco Werner and Emanuele Pirro.
With the big race lost, Peugeot had to find solace in the fact that at least one of their cars finished. Furthermore, it went to drown its sorrows in the rest of the LMS season. As Audi was still absent from this championship, the French company was able to wrap up the final four races with frightening ease.
With nothing to fear from the private gasoline prototypes, the 908’s scored their first 1-2 at the Nürburgring GP-Strecke, followed by a win for Pedro Lamy and Stéphane Sarrazin at Spa Francorchamps, where Nicolas Minassian and Marc Gené suffered a wheel bearing issue.
At Silverstone, Minassian/Gené took their revenge by winning the day, following a disqualification for Lamy/Sarrazin as they were running with a broken rear light. For the sixth and last round of the Le Mans Series season, the team traveled to São Paulo, Brazil.
There, at the beautiful Autódromo José Carlos Pace (formerly Interlagos), the Peugeot’s once again took pole and a commanding 1-2 victory. Their dominance was such that the second placed-car had lost 12 laps on the leader, and still retained second place. With all six races of the LMS championship won comfortably, Peugeot took the title almost as a formality. Despite the easy win, the 908’s mission was far from over, it still had to vanquish the ultimate enemy at the ultimate arena: it just had to beat Audi at Le Mans.
To be continued.