A Le Mans 24 Hours winner as recently as 2009, the Peugeot 908 HDI is now eligible for competition, but how will it cope in the rain?
Of all the conditions in which to drive one of Peugeot Sport’s precious and remarkable 908 HDi FAP LMP1 cars, this is the stuff of nightmares. The only thing worse than having your first taste of one of the fastest Le Mans prototypes in appalling conditions is not having that first taste at all. Distressingly, if the relentless rain doesn’t abate that’s exactly how today will play out…
We’re present at the Silverstone Classic media test day – a gathering of cars that reflects the full breadth of the world’s biggest historic race meeting. The leaden sky might be a foreboding shade of grey, but the impressive ‘Wing’ pit building is a riot of colour – a reflection of the vibrant historic racing scene.
But hang on a minute. A Peugeot 908? Surely that’s still modern, right? Well, yes and no. Until last year it was an iconic but obsolete race car residing in a Peugeot Sport’s collection – an heirloom to be dusted off occasionally and prepped for a run at Goodwood Festival of Speed, but very much retired from racing, as were all the cars from that epic Noughties era.
All that changed when Masters Historic Racing took the bold and visionary step of creating a championship for Le Mans-eligible GTs and prototypes from 1995-2012. Called Masters Endurance Legends, the series enjoyed a successful debut race late last year and MEL is now in the throes of its first full season. On Saturday July 21 it will enjoy top billing as Silverstone Classic’s feature event, when a spectacular grid of machines will race into the dusk.
It seems remarkable that Peugeot would wish to sell off any of its family silver, but when Peugeot Sport had to relocate from its base at Vélizy, the decision was taken to sell a few cars to free up some storage space. Naturally the 2009 Le Mans winner wasn’t among those offered for sale, but this car – 908 no09 – was one that Peugeot was willing to let go.
IT MIGHT NOT have a Le Mans win to its name, but #09 has enjoyed plenty of success, winning the Petit Le Mans and Sebring 12 Hours in 2009. It also came agonisingly close to winning Le Mans in 2010, a con-rod failure forcing its retirement while chasing down the leading Audi with just three hours of the race remaining. It’s a bona fide piece of French motor sport history and the undisputed star of this Silverstone test day.
Chassis 09 is one of a number of 908s run under the Peugeot Sport Classique banner by Chamberlain Synergy. A UK-based outfit with a strong reputation for its work with historic F1 cars and Group C racers, Chamberlain Synergy Motorsport is run by multiple historic F1 and Group C champion Bob Berridge.
It’s this knowledge of top-flight Le Mans machinery that forged the partnership between Chamberlain Synergy and Peugeot Sport. One in which the crack French outfit is happy to share technical information so that the cars can be raced and maintained to the highest standards.
Once 908 09 arrived in the UK, Chamberlain Synergy’s Steve Briggs set about a full rebuild so that the car could be brought back to pristine, race-ready condition. Price? Well, that’s on application. Besides, if you have to ask and all that… Given its historical significance, race-winning potential in MEL and the rapidly rising values of similarly significant endurance race cars (Porsche 956’s regularly command over £1m and a Peugeot 905 recently sold for more than £3m) you can come to you own estimation.
It might be less than a decade ago, but the titanic battle between Audi and Peugeot is worthy of recollection, simply because the German marque’s crushing success at Le Mans paints a misleading picture. I for one didn’t realise that of the 35 races contested by the 908, it won 25 – including all three of the big endurance classics for which it was eligible – Le Mans, Sebring and the Petit Le Mans. Of those 35 races, 25 were head-to-head confrontations with factory Audis. The Peugeots won 16.
Unsurprisingly there were titles along the way. Peugeot collected championship silverware in the Le Mans Series and the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, forerunner to the FIA World Endurance Championship.
The driver line-ups were stellar and included stars from the world of sports car racing and beyond. Formula 1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve was the marque’s big-name signing at the start of the programme in 2007. He would be joined by fellow ex-F1 driver Marc Gené in a roster that included multiple Champ Car title winner Sébastien Bourdais and established sports car names Stéphane Sarrazin, Nicolas Minassian and Pedro Lamy. Ricardo Zonta, Alex Wurz, David Brabham and Anthony Davidson, all ex-F1 drivers, would subsequently race 908 turbodiesels. This was a no-holds-barred effort.
Given the scale of Peugeot’s effort and ambition, the thought of a private individual buying and then attempting to run and race one of these extraordinary machines seems crazy. Yet here in the garage Chamberlain-Synergy’s crew is quietly working away. There are a laptop or two plugged in, plus a few umbilical lines connected to the engine in order to pre-warm the 5.5-litre bi-turbo V12, but otherwise it’s pretty standard stuff, handled by two mechanics and an engineer.
It’s natural to get hung up and somewhat intimidated by the complexity and sophistication of cars like the 908, but according to Briggs so long as you do all the pre-warming and system checks the big Pug runs like a Swiss watch. Run the engine on a strong, but not qualifying map, and they will last 12,000kms or more. That’s five or more seasons of racing in MEL. And, unlike many of the Group C cars, the level of on-board electronics means even if it does develop a fault the car will flag up most things for the crew, so they don’t spend hours chasing mystery bugs.
While the rain continues to hammer down outside, Berridge talks me through what I can expect, plus a few dos and don’ts. He’d already done me the courtesy of sending me the Peugeot Sport ‘Driver Book’ for the 908 – a 19-page operational manual of intense detail, covering not only the standard procedures, but every possible alarm, display page, recovery modes… My brain begins to ache shortly after absorbing the steering wheel buttons’ basic functions.
Best news to me is that the traction control system is very, very good. I won’t need to be playing around with any of the settings, and if I don’t give them cause to drag me out of the car after my first run the team will give me a meatier engine map, so I can feel a bit more of the big V12 oil burner’s legendary shove. It’s also welcome news that the 908 is pretty much bullet-proof. Then, with classic timing, Berridge beckons me towards him for one final pearl of wisdom: “There’s one vitally important thing I need to add. Don’t bloody crash it!” Gulp.
FINALLY, AS OUR closing session of the day approaches, the rain eases then stops. The track’s still wet – very wet in places – but there’s less chance for the flat-bottomed prototype to aquaplane off. My nerves are sparking, but I can’t not take up the opportunity to try this amazing car. Bob gives me the thumbs-up. We’re good to go.
It’s common to refer to modern era Le Mans prototypes as ‘spaceships’ due to their otherworldly looks and performance. Spend some time around one and the analogy only feels more and more appropriate. But it is not until you actually have the opportunity to drive one that the truth of the cliché hits home. This is a super-specialised craft, created to explore a different kind of space and time – that unique pocket of chaos that exists between the start and finish of a 24-hour race.
There’s a ritual to getting into the 908. For starters there’s no door as such, merely a hinged window that flicks up and forwards like an insect’s wing. From here you sit on the sidepod, then pull up your knees, swivel on your buttocks, tuck your legs though the aperture then slither your torso in after them. There’s more room than I’m expecting, but the raised pedal box feels alien at first. However once you can brace yourself and attach the bent oblong steering wheel you soon forget your heels are higher than your hips.
There’s a clutch pedal, but I’ll only be using it when leaving the pits and pulling up outside the garage, so the fact it’s straining my left calf muscle to depress it is of little concern. There are paddles for gearchanges and 15 assorted buttons and rotary switches to control the car’s vital functions. A small display screen and a horizontal row of shift lights sit centrally.
It feels pretty intimidating, but the view out through the huge bubble windscreen is fabulous. With radio earplugs in, the faint hiss of dead air creates a feeling of distance and isolation from the mechanics who are wheeling me out into the pit lane on dollies. They abruptly spin the car through 90 degrees to point me towards pit exit. The hiss of an airline being removed heralds the 908 dropping onto its wheels – shod with fresh Michelin wets – before I get the signal to start. Flick the ignition toggle set in the switch panel to the left, then thumb the green and black starter button on the top right of the steering wheel. This is it.
The V12 diesel fires immediately and settles into a rapid clatter. It’s a busy sound, more like a generator than a racing engine, with little or no aural clue as to the number of cylinders. A Ferrari 333SP this is not. Nevertheless it fills the cockpit with a pulsating sense of purpose. It sounds powerful and, in a strange way, a bit malevolent.
To pull away you need to engage the pit limiter and select first gear. With the clutch pedal depressed you then floor the throttle and hold it there while smoothly feeding the clutch in. It feels counter-intuitive, but works a treat, the 908 surging away from its mark and grumbling along against its electronic leash. Berridge has warned me about disengaging the pit limiter as I head on track as there’s enough torque to trouble the tyres in the first four gears. Needless to say my out lap is not a flyer.
You go through a rapid and rather conflicting set of emotions during tests like these. To start with you’re slightly numbed in disbelief at sitting in a car that has won or led the biggest endurance races of them all. You’re also in fear of doing something wrong or, worse, stupid. Which would be easy given the learning curve you’re climbing. But then you lose yourself in the process of trying to drive and make small steps towards the limit and not one giant leap into the gravel. It’s a heady feeling.
Very little I can write will do justice to how it feels when you pin the 908’s throttle. The bald stats are startling enough: 730bhp and 890lb ft of torque in a car weighing 925kg, but even that fails to express the surreal, endless sense of propulsion it delivers. The intermediate gears are simply devoured as all the torque goes to work. It’s all the more bewildering because the engine note bears no relation to the rate at which you’re accelerating. There’s no real crescendo of sound or delivery – unsurprising given the engine doesn’t even rev to 5000rpm – just an intensifying, unrelenting push towards the next corner. It shrinks Silverstone’s rangy expanses as surely as a hot wash shrinks cashmere.
The conditions are gradually improving, which is great as it gives me the confidence to work the car that little bit harder. Thankfully it’s not as intolerant of timidity as some race cars, but it still comes to life when you begin to stretch it. The brakes – 380mm carbon discs at the front, 337mm at the rear – have immense stopping power and encouraging levels of feel. As I’m using my left foot, the track’s slick and there’s no ABS, this is a considerable relief. The traction control is on a conservative setting, so it picks me up early but again offers supreme reassurance. That is fine by me.
And the downforce? Yep, there’s plenty of that, even though I feel like I’m struggling to carry enough speed into the corners to really lean on it.
AS PROMISED, THE BOYS signal me to come back to the pits. I’m hoping it’s for a feistier engine map rather than to evict me. It is, so with a quick once-over and a click or two on the rotary switch I’m waved back out. It’s made a big difference, as there’s now a real thump to way the 908 rips through each gear. It’s a totally addictive feeling and one that makes you whoop with the sheer madness of being hurled down the straights by this immense and apparently limitless force.
With a drying line I finally feel happy enough to try and drive with some purpose, rather than simply circulating. I’m glad I do because the 908 reveals much more of itself in the process. It’s such a complete machine, massively sure-footed with just enough feel to connect you, but not so much to distract you. The engine is remarkable – ferociously powerful and yet almost deadpan in its delivery – and the entire drivetrain feels fabulously finessed yet utterly indestructible.
What I wasn’t expecting was how approachable the car is in unfamiliar hands. I wouldn’t presume to say it’s easy to drive anywhere near its limits, but it feels like a car developed to be vice-free. The novelty of its acceleration and the lunacy of its braking and cornering abilities is something I was only just beginning to sample, but I tasted enough to know this car must have been a sensational thing to race. Especially at Le Mans, in front of a fired-up home crowd and against the very best of enemies in Audi Sport.
My last few laps are very special. With a dry line to attack through most of the corners and plenty of wet on the straights to cool the tyres, I alternate between feeling the car clamp itself to the track through the fast corners as those wings and underbody aerodynamics really begin to work, and peering into one of the high-mounted mirrors and watching in awe as those same aerodynamics lift a roiling plume of spray 20 feet into the air.
As the session is flagged to a close I have a few minutes to let the experience percolate and the adrenaline dissipate. Any Le Mans car is special, but one built by a factory team with the express intention of winning is one of the finest things imaginable. If your heart beats faster at the thought of cars like the 908 you need to be at the Silverstone Classic on Saturday evening, when for one blissful race the Hangar Straight will echo to the sounds of Les Hunaudières.