Serious fun

Modern-day Le Mans ace Nicolas Minassian experienced more than he bargained for when he agreed to step back 20 years to sample Peugeot’s Group C racer

When Group C historic series organiser Bob Berridge phoned to say that Nicolas Minassian would be the guest star at Silverstone Classic in Rupert Clevely’s Peugeot 905B, the thought did occur that it could be a fitting case of déja vu. Allowing in the sports prototype built to the FIA’s game-shredding ‘Formula 1’ regulations that ultimately struck the death knell for Group C by making the rest of the field obsolete… surely this was taking historical accuracy too far.

It would, of course, have been a treat to watch Minassian – a veteran of Peugeot’s latest Le Mans quest with its spectacular 908 turbo-diesels – get to grips with a great car from a previous generation. But sadly we never found out whether Minassian would win – or by how much.

He qualified second, 0.06sec down on a Porsche 962 in damp conditions, but a clutch problem left Nic a frustrated spectator for the dry Saturday evening race. Then Clevely agreed to step aside and allow Minassian to hop in his luscious Lancia LC2 for the second race of the weekend. Nic took some time to acclimatise to a car from a much earlier generation of Group C, but got into the groove and, er, nicked second place on the last lap to inish just behind the equally stunning Sauber-Mercedes C9 of Gareth Evans. It had been a great show.

And happily for this story, Minassian still had at least an hour’s worth of 905 experience during practice and qualifying. So over coffee on Sunday morning we sit down to relect on two generations of Peugeot Le Mans winners.

“The 905 didn’t feel that old,” he says with a smile. “It 905 has a sequential gearbox, so you stay flat, you pull and the gear goes up – very easy. And it is very well thought out for the driver. Visibility is good.

“The biggest difference to the cars of today is that it is very stiff, unbelievably so, because of the aero tunnels underneath [compared with the flat bottoms of the modern prototypes]. The 905 runs very low because of this and it has lots of grip. OK, it is on Le Mans settings so it’s not perfect for Silverstone, but you can really feel it underneath you. I was amazed. It’s not far off the cars we drive now, it’s just that the aero concept is different. The modern cars are quite soft in comparison, they roll a bit and you can feel the movement and pitch.

“I’m used to turbocharged cars now, and with the Peugeot diesel there was so much more torque, so you always felt you had masses of power. But a normally aspirated engine like this one is very smooth and in the slow corners it gives you good traction. Again, I was amazed how responsive it is, its driveability. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

To British fans, Minassian will be remembered as the iery Frenchman who threw gravel at backmarker Michael Bentwood following a Formula 3 incident at Thruxton. But there was always more to him than that. In 2000, he finished runner-up to Bruno Junqueira in Formula 3000, then headed stateside with the Brazilian to race Indycars – only for team boss Chip Ganassi to run out of patience with his rookie mid-season. It was a harsh experience, but 13 Le Mans starts later, he has few regrets – although despite multiple big wins in the 908, there’s a gaping hole where a victory at the 24 Hours should be. Berridge, pictured below with Nic, butts in.

“So what do you think of the standards of driving and car preparation in the Group C Series?” he growls, with more than a hint of expectation. “Well, you can see it is competitive,” Minassian replies, without missing a beat. “Everyone has got different levels, but they all take it very seriously, which stunned me. I thought it would be more of a ‘fun’ weekend…”

So what’s more enjoyable: Group C or the modern cars? Long pause. “I’ve got to think about it because an answer doesn’t come easily. I enjoy cars that are simpler than we have now. Modern cars take some of the flair away from the drivers. If I had to choose, I’d go for this era. There was much more to it than just being fast. Sure, you had to be quick, but you also had to be good with the brakes and gearbox, and not over-rev the engine. You had to think, and that was what could make you look special.”

Gareth Evans is also listening in: “So on the limit, is it easier to drive a modern car?” he asks. “It is – 100 per cent,” says Nic. “Here, you don’t have traction control or ABS, and the gearshift isn’t paddles behind the steering wheel. The 908, anyone can drive that car. Once you are out on track it is a piece of cake. The only difficulty is the amount of torque, which can catch you out.”

Minassian blows his cheeks out as he considers what it would have been like to race the 905 at Le Mans: “It must have been tough. Like I said, the car is so stiff on the suspension. Le Mans at that time would have been much more bumpy. So it would have been physical, although today we do have to drive at 100 per cent nearly all the time. In the past few years Le Mans has turned into a sprint race.”

Nic quit Peugeot before the manufacturer announced its shock withdrawal from Le Mans. Disillusioned, he returned to Henri Pescarolo for whom he had driven earlier in his career, knowing full well he couldn’t win the race in a new privateer car. The pretty Japanese Dome showed some promise, but ultimately it was a disaster for the team.

For Nic, Le Mans remains unfinished business. “I would love to have another crack at trying to win overall,” he says, “but if I could win the LMP2 class instead I’d be very happy.” He glances at the 905. “I’m not really fussy, but I like something with power. That’s what’s missing in sports cars today. I’m not a rule maker, but the cars should have more power and less grip. Then we would have more fun and less risk with backmarkers.

“Even the Porsche Curves, you go into the first corner and the next three are lat out now. There’s not much driving involved, you just sit there. You just need the balls to do it – and once you’ve done it once…”

From brutal Group C to sophisticated LMP1, times have changed. But purist racing drivers such as Nicolas Minassian, they stay the same.

Damien Smith