Peugeot says goodbye to its racing program
When Peugeot unveiled the 908 HDi FAP in 2007, it was with eager excitement that the endurance world welcomed the French team. It was a return to roots of sorts, as France and more specifically Le Mans, are obviously synonymous with sportscar racing and it had been since the Lion’s last participation in 1993 that any factory French team was in a position to win; not to mention any true competition to the ever-conquering Audi squad. Like Jaguar is to British fans of Le Mans, Peugeot represented the tricolor’s sentimental successes at La Sarthe and it was with much pride that the team posed for photographs at the Pesage (scrutineering) the week of the 2007 Le Mans 24 Hours.
The pressure was obvious from the word go. Everyone, from fans to media to the team itself, knew winning Le Mans was the target. Everything else was just practice. But unfortunately, Peugeot practiced better than they raced at Le Mans. They won many Le Mans Series races and several championships, but only managed 1 Le Mans win in 5 tries with the 908 HDi FAP and it’s big sister the 908. The unspoken timetable for a Le Mans assault is usually, first year to learn, second year to win. But it took Peugeot three tries to get that success and it cost them dearly in the eyes of their corporate managers.
Every June, the Peugeot pits were tense. Drivers were frustrated, team managers short with mechanics, and photographers and reporters shooed away when possible. Meanwhile at the other end of pitlane, Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen were laughing it up and having a good time with Dr. Ullrich like it was a VW Polo Cup race weekend.
Peugeot’s undoing was the enormous pressure they endured at their “home” track, coming from both the company structure, and from the racing team itself. Everyone knew what was at stake and it unraveled them every year. In 2010, hoping to make good on their success from the previous year, Peugeot showed up with tremendously fast cars. It was difficult to watch the online Peugeot TV race presentation as the cars dropped out one by one, leading the presenter to shrug with obvious discomfort at knowing he’d have to adlib the rest of the race with no team cars left. What had been a huge effort on all levels, from the aforementioned online television broadcast to the hospitality areas to the marketing surrounding the event, was to forever be remembered as a catastrophic failure. Millions of Euros pumped into a year-long program just to have it go up in smoke, literally. 2011 wasn’t much better as the 908s were slower than Audi’s R18s and were beaten by only a few seconds by one single remaining Audi.
The Peugeot press release blames tough economic times for the sudden pull-out and there’s no reason to doubt it. Someone within the company figured out the racing program wasn’t bringing in as much in terms of brand marketing and recognition as they wanted. Not enough bang for the buck so to speak.
Now, mechanics, team managers and drivers all must find a new home for the time being. And in some ways, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve all been laid off. Money over racing spirit. It’s hard for the fan to swallow, but that’s the reality of business. Just when the World Endurance Championship is about to begin, a championship Peugeot fought so hard to have, the cord is severed. It’s disheartening really, and shows it was a cold business decision through and through.
In all honesty, as the costs to run these outfits have skyrocketed it was a luxury (and pleasure, of course) to have two huge factory efforts going toe to toe these past few seasons. It was fun while it lasted.
No word on the future from Peugeot. We can only hope for a return in 2013 against Audi and Toyota. Three factory teams battling each other? Now that’s a true luxury.
And what's to happen to those 908s sitting in a shop somewhere? Will a private team pick them up? One can only hope as it will make 2012 seem less disappointing. Time will tell...
See a photo gallery of the best Peugeot shots in our database: http://www.motorsport.com/lemans/news/photo-gallery-peugeot-pulls-out-of-le-mans-prototype-racing/