PEUGEOT: A CHALLENGER AVID FOR LE MANS SUCCESS
After the disappointment which followed its unsuccessful bid to win the 2008 Le Mans 24 Hours with the 908 HDi FAP, which stood out as endurance racing's best car, Peugeot Sport has not eased up in the slightest. Twelve months on, it returns to the French classic even stronger thanks to the invaluable additional experience it has gained during its build-up to this year's competition. Having been able to focus solely on the race, the team goes into the 2009 event feeling composed and confident. That said, surprises are always possible in such an unforgiving contest as Le Mans, an event with a unique blend of human emotion and technical prowess which all manufacturers dream of winning one day, and the legend of which has been forged by countless dramatic turnarounds.
Peugeot Sport has taken onboard the troubles it encountered in 2008 and its programme has since focused on working on the traction control system which gave rise problems when rain started to fall in last year's race, as well as on preventing the radiators from becoming soiled, optimising the tyres with the efficient help of Michelin to match the characteristics of the 908 HDi FAP and on improving wheel-centering to assist the mechanics' work during wheel changes. In parallel to this work, and to the experience the team has gained at the different circuits it has visited since last June, Peugeot Sport's technical staff have also had to deal with the regulation changes introduced by the Automobile Club de l'Ouest with a view to curbing car performance in 2009.
This work has focused on five main areas, says Peugeot Sport's Technical Director Bruno Famin: "To begin with, the ACO's measures mean a drop in engine power because our car must run with a smaller air restrictor, the diameter of which has come down from 39.9mm to 38.3mm. Meanwhile, the requirement for closed cars to have air conditioning to prevent the cockpit temperature from exceeding 32o.C has called for the incorporation of a power take-off at the end of the gearbox to drive the compressor. We have also worked with our partner Bosch to optimise injection and combustion. "We have paid special attention to aerodynamics, too. The regulations dictate a smaller rear wing, the width of which has come down from 2 to 1.6 metres. We have consequently had to revise the overall package in order to rebalance the car by reducing front downforce. This explains the new front-end bodywork we will be running for the first time at Le Mans."
"Then, in April, the ACO forced us to carry 30kg of ballast, and that has had a significant impact on the resistance of certain mechanical parts, notably suspension and brake components. Lastly, the fuel filler pipe is now narrower, and that will add almost three seconds to fuel stops."
To validate the latest developments, and to enhance the package's reliability as a whole, Peugeot Sport has worked through an extensive test programme at a variety of circuits.
Olivier Quesnel, who took over as Director of Peugeot Sport on January 1, 2009, placed the emphasis on two priority objectives: "The first was to work on reliability by carrying out a high number of endurance simulation tests rather than give the team a busy race programme. I also wanted to make sure that the mechanics were raring to go and not too tired on their arrival at Le Mans. It was also important to complete the line-up with experienced drivers, which is why I went for David Brabham and Sebastien Bourdais whose passion for Le Mans and will to win are a secret for nobody."
Olivier Quesnel has chosen not to juggle with the make-up of the crews and refers to them using jargon from the world of cycle racing, his other passion:
No.7908 HDi FAP: crewed by routier-sprinters Pedro Lamy (POR), Christian Klien (AUT) and Nicolas Minassian (FRA).
No.8908 HDi FAP: a balanced, all-French crew of sprinters, with Sebastien Bourdais, Franck Montagny and Stephane Sarrazin.
No.9908 HDi FAP: a rearguard team of battle-hardened drivers with extensive race-craft, namely David Brabham (AUS), Marc Gene (ESP) and Alex Wurz (AUT).
At the end of May, a three-day fitness and team-bonding course was organised in Chamonix to put the final seal on the bonds between the drivers who make up the three crews. The other members of Peugeot Sport haven't been forgotten, either, since the mechanics have all been following fitness training programmes and will be tended by an osteopath throughout the race itself.
Last but not least, Olivier Quesnel saw the presence of a fourth car as a key part of the team's bid for success at Le Mans. Bruno Famin and Peugeot management agreed at once to having a fourth car run by Pescarolo Sport, an obvious choice given Henri Pescarolo's past association with Peugeot and his background as a living Le Mans legend.
Despite all this groundwork, Olivier Quesnel is aware that Peugeot's main rival, Audi, which has won eight times, will once again start as favourite, with Peugeot in the role of challenger, albeit a challenger with an avid appetite for success.