Matters of moment, April 2016

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There’s something missing from this issue of Motor Sport, something to which I know many of you usually turn before anything else. But never fear: Nigel Roebuck’s Reflections will return.

A sudden illness prevented our editor-in-chief from making his immensely popular contribution this month, but I’m delighted to report that Nigel is getting back on track following this unscheduled pitstop. 

The stream of affection for Nigel, via our website, was entirely unsurprising to us, but much appreciated by the man himself. He has asked me to offer his sincere gratitude to all who’ve expressed their best wishes and I know he can’t wait to be back doing what he does best. We look forward to his return to race pace very soon.

***

Adrian Newey’s personally curated stand at the first London Classic Car Show in 2015 was going to be tough to beat. But if anyone could do it, Gordon Murray was the man. As usual, the design genius delivered, the celebration of his beloved McLaren F1 at the sophomore show in February proving a triumph we won’t forget. The collection of road and race F1s was always going to be fab (they just get better with age, don’t they?), but the detail of Murray’s reproduced neatly handwritten notes and jottings, including strikingly familiar sketches dating back as far as 1969, made this a landmark event for any car show.

Elsewhere, Peugeot’s stand featured the 405 double Dakar winner from the 1980s and a gun-metal grey 205 T16 that seemed magnetically to drop the jaws of most passers-by. Between them stood Peugeot Sport boss Bruno Famin and a rare opportunity to quiz an engineer who has masterminded everything from Le Mans success to glory at Pikes Peak and most recently victory on the modern Dakar. The next 30 minutes proved fascinating.

The glow of victory from the South American rally-raid had yet to fade, and understandably so. The two-week cross-country classic lost Chile and Peru to politics this year and was further truncated by El Nino’s storms, but its route through Argentina and Bolivia still offered one of the few remaining genuine motor sport adventures. And Famin claims it is harder to win now than it ever was in Africa’s Sahara.

“Why? Because you have three factory teams: Toyota, Mini and Peugeot,” he says. “And the conditions of the road are very different, too. You have heavy rain or snow, and four complete stages run at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet. When the rally was in Africa you knew what you were going to get. There was no surprise.”

Peugeot has made a speciality out of motor sport ‘adventure’ projects since its shock withdrawal from sports car racing almost on the eve of the revived World Endurance Championship in 2012. The following year, Peugeot Sport restored some pride with a celebrated attack on the all-asphalt Pikes Peak hillclimb in Colorado. Its first collaboration with nine-time world rally champion Sébastien Loeb resulted in a fabled smash ’n’ grab record run in a wonderfully excessive 208 T16 special. “The place is unique, the car was incredible – the driver, too,” smiles Famin. “We went there, we smashed the record and we don’t need to go back.”

If anything, Loeb’s Dakar debut this year was even more impressive. He dominated the first week only to crash out of the lead in a dry river. While team-mate Stéphane Peterhansel ensured Peugeot’s victory, Loeb won more stages and his final classification of ninth was almost beside the point (for us, at least, if not for a ferocious competitor who only wants to win).

With Carlos Sainz also on the driving strength, Famin has a dream team. “Sébastien is a very hard worker,” he says. “He’s easy to work with because he says what he thinks and he knows what he wants. The first time he drove the 2008 DKR was in Morocco. He didn’t know the car or the track, but after 10km he was telling us all of its weak points. He’s demanding, but in a positive way. 

“There are a lot of similarities to Carlos. They worked together at Citroën when Sébastien started his WRC career and I believe he learnt a lot from Carlos. The big difference is Carlos has no doubts, and Seb always doubts. And as he doubts, he wants to make sure everything is under control.”

Famin bristles at any notion these campaigns are “second division” compared with Le Mans, but admits that withdrawal in 2012 still hurts. “I had no choice but to accept it, but for the whole team, from the mechanics to the drivers, it has been a real trauma,” he says. “The guys in the team are still wounded internally. Things were very bad for the group at the time, but the way it was done was very sharp. It’s still…” He grimaces and doesn’t bother finishing the sentence.

The decision, taken from the top of the PSA Group in which Peugeot and Citroën exist, came in the midst of a financial crisis and workforce redundancies. But it’s no secret that a return to Le Mans is on the agenda – at some point.

“I hope there will be less time from the next project to the 908 than there was between the 908 and the 905 [Group C car that won Le Mans in 1992 and ’93],” says Famin. “Our big boss of the PSA Group [Carlos Tavares] has said openly he would like to come back to Le Mans, but for the time being the conditions are not there. The budget for the WEC is far too high and we must have a return on investment. I don’t know how Porsche or Audi can have a reasonable ROI.

“Within our group we have to improve our own situation and the cost of Le Mans has to go down – I don’t know how many years it will take for those two paths to cross.”

The parallels between Formula 1 and Le Mans’ top prototype class are becoming striking. “The ACO is already looking at a budget cap,” says Famin. “The problem, like in F1, is to control it. And if you limit testing on the track you develop simulators, which cost a lot more. As long as a manufacturer is willing to spend 200 million euros, pounds or whichever currency on a championship, it is very difficult to avoid by rule.”

There are other echoes. “When you change rules every three years it’s a very high cost,” he says. “You need to have the team thinking about new concepts, not only improving what they’ve got. Every time I meet my friends from the FIA I push them on this. Rules stability is the best and most efficient method of cost control.

“As an engineer, WEC is fantastic. As a team boss, it’s a disaster because it’s too expensive. I was in the working group that started to think about the rules for 2014 and the principle that we do not limit the cylinder capacity and give a quantity of energy per lap that you manage. It is still a very good idea, but we have to go further when it comes to efficiency. It’s not about more energy recovery systems; as everyone here in England knows – the land of Colin Chapman – it’s about weight!

“The biggest problem today with the WEC rules is that the weight is too high. Everybody knows you can make an LMP car at 750kg, because Penske did it with the Porsche spyder. But the minimum weight now is something like 875 when it should be 750kg.”

He argues the lower weight would allow privateer constructors to run more competitively without expensive hybrid systems. “If manufacturers want to communicate their efficiency with energy recovery systems, fine, but they run with the extra weight. It would close the gap. As it is, it’s more or less compulsory to have a 125kg system in the car [to compete with them].”

So far, the WEC has managed its hybrid era much more positively and openly than F1. Now it faces the same challenges to control its costs. If it does so, Peugeot could be added to the mix of Porsche vs Audi vs Toyota. Juicy.

***

Patty McLaren, wife of Bruce, died in early February. And so passes another link to motor racing’s golden age. It was an honour to sit beside her at the BRDC awards in December, as the likes of John Surtees, Nigel Mansell and others showered her with genuine affection. She was frail in body but not in mind as we talked about the drivers and fellow racing wives she knew as close friends. That conversation is a memory I shall cherish.